Tue, 15 Jan 2002

Few regrets as Europeans wave goodbye to won currencies

Ian Black, Guardian News Service, Brussels

Two excited little girls gave a thumbs-up to Europe's single currency the other day after Dad's Brussels bank exchanged their few hundred Belgian francs, neatly packed into handy plastic tubes, for crisp new euro notes and coins. Pocket money and tooth fairy rates in our household have been rounded up, not down, as parental indulgence and the fiddliness of finding the precise change in cents prevailed over inflationary concerns.

Piggy banks matter as much as the cost of a metro ticket or a baguette at the boulangerie: The almost unbelievable smoothness of the biggest cash changeover in history, without significant price rises, has ensured that most of euroland's 300 million-plus people, including my daughters, were impressed and even enthusiastic.

E-Day confounded doom-mongers and sceptics hoping that riots by furious consumers would be bad news for the most tangibly integrationist step Europe has taken. At least 90 percent of transactions are already in euros. The Dutch guilder goes on Jan. 28, followed by the French franc and the Irish punt; the others cease to be legal tender on Feb. 28.

Serious macroeconomic tests certainly lie ahead for the European Central Bank's monetary policy and the deficit limits imposed by the Maastricht treaty. But Europeans from the Arctic to the Azores are now using the same money fairly happily, without too much regret for their francs, marks or drachma.

Not all of them, of course: Which explains why the ECB and European Commission largely remained gloat-free zones despite the pulse-quickening implications of renewed referendum fever in Sweden and Denmark and the rapidly overheating debate in Britain.

Head and heart pull in opposite directions. Romano Prodi, the commission president, believes that the euro's successful transition from a virtual to a real currency means people are more willing to embrace change than previously thought, and that this will translate into popular support for "more Europe". Maybe.

Prodi was elated when he rang the closing bell at the New York stock exchange last week after reports that China was buying euros for its foreign currency reserves. And it is already clear that economic government, closer co-ordination of national budgets and the relationship between the eurozone and the three northern "outs" will now become hotter items on the EU agenda.

It was not the best moment to issue another call for the abolition of national vetoes -- "atom bombs in the back pocket of every leader" -- needed to streamline decision-making in an expanding union, where the sluggish progress of economic reform belies the rhetoric of integration. E-Day was a truly thrilling moment. Newcomers from Poland and Slovenia are steaming to Brussels and preparing to scrap the zloty and tolar. But the current residents of euro-land need time to get used the extraordinary fact that they do finally have a little bit of Europe in their pockets - and piggy banks.

By a neat coincidence, Feb. 28 also sees the first session of the constitutional convention on the future of Europe, being run by the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. There was plenty of groaning about VGE's appointment by the Laeken summiteers last month. Even taking account of standard horse- trading requirements, was it really appropriate to appoint an egg-headed grandee in his late seventies to a body intended to bring disenchanted citizens closer to remote institutions and revive interest in a project whose original raison d'etre is ancient history for so many?

The novelty of the convention is that it will be the broadest exercise in consultation the EU has ever seen. Its 105 members include representatives of governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament and all 13 candidate countries. It will also be open to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to make their voices heard.

Most important, though, its findings will be hard to ignore when the member states negotiate a new -- and perhaps final -- EU treaty in 2004. VGE has already been in action: he flew to Rome -- courtesy of the Italian airforce -- to check out Silvio Berlusconi's credentials after the embarrassing resignation of his europhile foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero.

And he has predicted that the convention will be as important as the Philadelphia convention of 1787 that wrote the U.S. constitution, comparing himself modestly to another elder statesman, George Washington. The phrase lese-majeste has not yet been uttered. But you can feel it coming.