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EU: The Euro Swings Into Its First Real Week Of Business

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The euro, the European common currency, went through its first business day today since notes and coins were introduced on New Year's Day, 1 January. With the celebrations now over, the euro must serve as the normal money for 300 million people in 12 European Union countries, from the Arctic Circle to the Aegean Sea. So how are Europe's citizens coping with the new currency?

Prague, 2 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The euro is, at last, a real currency, with coins that you can jingle in your pocket and notes that you can fold into your wallet or purse.

The introduction of the new money on New Year's Day took place in a party atmosphere across the Continent, with revelers on Paris's Champs Elysee, for instance, cheering as an Italian tourist received his first euros from a bank cash-dispensing machine.

The launch of euro notes and coins comes after three years in which the common currency was merely an invisible means of accounting. The occasion, of course, also presented European Union leaders with a chance to wax lyrical.

Among them, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi: "The euro is our money. It is your money. It is our future. It is a piece of Europe in our hands."

But now, the New Year's parties are over, the working week has begun and the new currency must prove its usefulness to ordinary men and women from Ivalo in the Finnish north to Sicily in the Italian south. The politicians and bankers have promised that the common currency -- which presently circulates in 12 EU states -- will bring with it new efficiencies in using the single market, and will increase prosperity around the Union.

As the head of the European Central Bank, Wim Duisenberg, put it: "In those three years [since the euro's introduction], the euro has clearly demonstrated it can achieve its main objectives. These include ensuring price stability, enhancing market transparency across national borders, and facilitating commerce -- that is, communication, both inside and outside Europe."

Foreign-exchange markets greeted the introduction of euro notes and coins today by giving the common currency a solid initial boost in value against other major currencies -- the dollar, yen, and pound. But the immediate preoccupation of ordinary people was how to work out prices and their change in the shops and supermarkets.

At one suburban supermarket in the Belgian city of Antwerp, deputy manager Patrick Sluyts said that business was proceeding quietly and that people were going through the checkouts without hitches: "Everything is [being calculated] in euros, but customers can also see the total in Belgian francs, as well as the euro. So the people can also see what [the price] was in Belgian francs, so there is no problem."

His shop, part of the Delhaize chain, is for today accepting only Belgian francs as payment, and issuing only euros in return, a tactic designed to cut confusion at checkout desks.

In Ireland, some companies dealt with the same problem in a different way. For instance, in the city of Kilkenny, the popular Paris-Texas bar set up a change kiosk, where customers had to change their cash into euros before being served. Bar assistant Sharon Rooney: "Everybody came in and changed their Irish money -- punts -- to euros, and then we only accepted euros on all the tills. But some of them seemed to be delighted by the change and were taking photographs and everything like that, handing in the old and getting the new back. It seemed to be fine."

Things did not run quite so smoothly in Greece, however. Athens News Agency reporter Harry Papachristou said many small shopkeepers in the city had not stocked up on euros and were reluctant to accept anything but drachmas in payment for goods. He said it was his impression that the same was happening around Greece: "Around the country, it would be even worse than in Athens, because, in the countryside, there are not as many banks as in Athens, and there are many, many villages from which citizens would have to drive five, 10, or 15 kilometers to reach a bank. And they apparently have not done so yet."

He also said there was a problem with the automatic bank cash dispensers: "They just distribute 20 and 50 euro banknotes, so we will have a shortage in five- and 10-euro banknotes. And I think this is going to be a problem, too, unless shopkeepers really go to the bank and provide themselves with five- and 10-euro banknotes. There is going to be an awful problem with change, at least in the first days."

Three EU member states have not adopted the euro for the present. They are Sweden, Britain, and Denmark. But at least one border area of Sweden, namely the Arctic town of Haparanda, is in full swing with the euro. At Haparanda, bordering Finland, the local bank opened after midnight on New Year's Eve to change Swedish currency for euros. The town has long experience in using the Finnish markka for dual-currency local trading and will now simply switch to the euro.

Local businessman Pontus Kallioniemi, speaking from Haparanda -- temperature minus 23 degrees Celsius -- said: "The euro today seems to go very fine. I went to Finland this morning and made my first transaction with the euro today. I was buying something, and I paid for it in euros."

But in non-euro-zone country Britain, not everybody is happy about the arrival of the common currency. Representatives of an anti-euro group staged a demonstration today outside the Bank of England in London. One of them, Tony Bennett, said: "We are going to lose economic control of our affairs if we ever join the euro. We will not be able to control the main leads of the economy, and it is essentially a political project, like [European Commission President] Romano Prodi said yesterday. The intention is for the euro to pave the way for [EU] political union."

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