introducing the euro

This year is special for most European countries. For members of the European Union, all but three currencies, the histories of which in many cases go back hundreds of years, are being replaced by a new currency: the euro.

Pat Leung
Guardian

The old currencies will not disappear at once. In France, for instance, it will be possible to use francs until Feb. 17. In Italy, the lira will circulate until Feb. 28. Germany, unique among the European countries, decided to go cold turkey; on Jan. 1, the German mark disappeared forever.

The birth of the new currency marked the tone of this New Year’s Eve. Almost all the huge, public square parties that were organized by both large and small European municipalities to welcome the new year had the euro as a central theme.

The new currency was publicly inaugurated by the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who bought — with euros, of course — a bouquet of roses for his wife at 12:01 a.m. Throughout the night, curious Europeans crowded ATMs to have a first look at the new notes.

The euro will become so much a part of Europeans’ daily lives that people will have trouble remembering the pre-euro days. But from the point of view of relatively detached observers who will probably use the euro only while on vacation, what considerations can we make about it?

First, the euro’s introduction indicates a remarkable capacity to promote and accept social and cultural change. I doubt America could implement a similar measure now. Imagine the likelihood of the United States eliminating the dollar to share a currency with Canada and Mexico and you will have an idea of what I mean.

The euro’s birth opposes the many euro-skeptic signs that have been produced recently. The prospect of a unified Europe is still far away, and the division over recent issues of international politics shows that as a political entity, Europe is still “”a geographic expression.”” The impression, however, is that after 2,000 years of warfare, Europeans have understood that they cannot progress without one another.

The second consideration arises from a slight twist in the observation just made — there are few signs of political union, but the economic union has been arguably accomplished.

It is hard not to see a confirmation of the primacy of economy over politics today, an indication of the incipient crisis of politics. Financial scandals and financial concentrations — the Enron bankruptcy being the most recent — have dramatically revealed this problem in America: The economy has become more and more independent of political and democratic control. It is now a force with its own objectives, its own institutions and considerable independence.

The ease with which the euro has been introduced amid great political and social differences is another sign that business prevails over politics in Europe, too.

Even in Europe, we can expect the political agenda to be increasingly dictated by economic interests. This matter is not trivial. Centuries of struggle have given us the legal instruments to monitor and control the political power, but the global reach of economic interests is so recent that, to this day, the collectivity is defenseless against them.

For example, I can fearlessly say terrible things about the U.S. president because the First Amendment protects me. However, if I publicly criticize specific products and invite people not to consume them, I risk multiple lawsuits.

The European “”third way”” was originally meant as a conciliation of the needs of capitalism and the primacy of politics, intended as management of the common good. The speed differential between the economic and the political integration of Europe makes one wonder if the overbearing power of economy that we are witnessing here is extending faster than we thought.

My third and final consideration is strictly personal. With the introduction of the euro, certain currencies will disappear that had a special significance for me.

While I understand the importance of the unified currency and see its inevitability, I will miss the colorful beauty of the Dutch guilder, with notes that look like abstract paintings, and the crisp and crackling paper of the French franc.

Most of all, I will miss the 50-franc note. While other countries were busy celebrating dead presidents and members of the royal family, the French decided to put the Little Prince on the 50-franc note, the character of the eponymous children’s book written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I can think of no better homage to the French than this little boy standing lonely on his tiny planet, surrounded by stars.

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