The Euro: From Conception to Circulation of a Common European Currency

The Euro: From Conception to Circulation of a Common European Currency

The Euro: From Conception to Circulation of a Common European Currency*1

Donna Pirouz

Why are so many people against the euro and think that an unwise decision with unfortunate consequences may have been made, while others embrace it and look forward to its many benefits and possibilities?  In this paper I will describe how the citizens of the twelve member countries of Euroland have been affected by the emergence of a new currency, the euro.2  Due to availability of source material, I have limited my discussion to France and Germany.  Likewise, my descriptive analysis will focus on the production of the euro as well as some cultural implications of the currency’s introduction; political and economic issues and implications related to the euro will not be discussed, since these are beyond my expertise.  Hopefully, this paper will help elucidate several reasons for the euphoria as well as fear associated with the launch of the new currency, which is, indeed, a very significant step in building a united Europe.

             I will begin with a brief history of the European Union and the conception of the euro.  Secondly, I will explain the production and description of the banknotes and coins, giving attention to features of the currency designed to express and promote European unity, design features for the visually impaired, and some security measures taken to prevent counterfeit.  Thirdly, I will take up the process of introducing the new currency, with an emphasis on the full-scale introduction of the euro on January 1, 2002. 

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*This essay is a revision of a faculty colloquium presentation delivered September 26, 2002.

The European Union and the Euro

            The European Union began in 1950, when Robert Schuman, former President of the French Republic, proposed the creation of an economic community comprised of the origin of the Europe of Six (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands).  In 1957, the Europe of Six created the European Economic Community.  In 1973, the Europe of Six became the Europe of Nine with the admission of Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom.  In 1981, Greece became the community’s 10th member; in 1986, Spain and Portugal were admitted to the European Economic Community (EEC).  In 1993, the European Union (EU) was created, comprised of the members of the EEC.  Austria, Finland and Sweden were admitted to the European Union in 1995. 

             Efforts to create a common European currency began over 35 years ago.  Pierre Werner, former Luxembourg Prime Minister, laid the groundwork for a single currency in 1970.  In 1978, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President of France, and Helmut Schmidt, German Chancellor, continued the impetus for a common currency (Journal Français 28).2  The European Council in Copenhagen accepted the principle of a European monetary system based on stable but adjustable exchange rates, and, in 1979, the European Currency Unit (ECU), to later become the euro, was born.  It represented an average of the participating currencies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, François Mitterand, President of France, pushed quite hard for the euro.  At the time, Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor, also did much to persuade the German people to accept a new currency.  François Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission (1985-1995) and Theodor Waigel, German Minister of Finance (1989-1998) also strongly encouraged a single currency (Journal Français 28).  The efforts of the elected governments of the member states of the European Union to create and develop a new currency reached a crescendo in December 1995.  At a meeting that month, the European Council adopted the name “euro” was adopted, as suggested by Waigel, who refused the name “ecu,” saying it was “way too bizarre for German ears” (Journal Français 28).

             An important step toward the introduction of the euro was the establishment of the European Central Bank (ECB) in 1998.  Based in Frankfurt am Main in Germany, the Bank “aims to maintain price stability and to conduct a single monetary policy across the euro area.”  It was “responsible for managing the development and introduction of the euro.”  The ECB worked with the national central banks and together they are known as the Eurosystem (www.euro.ecb.int; accessed 19 December 2001). 

             A key reason the EU selected the name “euro” for the new, common currency was due to the fact that the name sounded very similar to and could be easily pronounced within all the languages of Euroland.  With its official abbreviation as EUR, the euro’s logo is a blue square emblazoned with a yellow euro symbol, “which was inspired by the Greek letter ‘epsilon’ (€), harking back to classical times and the cradle of European civilization.  The symbol also refers to the first letter of the word ‘Europe.’  The two parallel lines indicate the stability of the euro” (European Central Bank)3.  Like the French franc, which, since 1976, has had no reference to gold, the euro is not backed by gold, but by the monetary policy and vaunted stability of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt (www.germany-info.org; accessed 17 December 2001).

             The benefits of using a common currency are many.  First of all, companies throughout Europe would not have to deal in the messiness of handling different currencies.  Secondly, companies would have a more reliable means of calculating trade and investments.  Thirdly, cross-border investments will likely increase as the euro lifts barriers to free trade in goods, services, labs and capital.  Fourthly, price comparisons will be easier and consumers will profit from greater competition and price transparency throughout the euro area (Germany; 8 December 01).  And lastly, everyone, including tourists, will have an easier time as they travel from one Euroland member state to another, not having to lose money from the exchange of one currency to another.

Production of the Euro

Production of the eight different euro coins began in May 1998, while production of the seven different banknotes began in July 1999.  Twelve printing works, two in Germany, none in Luxembourg and one in each of the other countries, produces the currency.  The German printing works manufacture the greatest number of bills and coins: 17.1 billion coins and 4.34 billion bills.  More fifty- and twenty- EUR bills were printed than any other bills and more one- and ten-cent coins were produced than any other coins (ECB), because these bills and coins were thought to be used most frequently to make change.  Banknotes look the same throughout the euro area, indicating a common European identity.  By comparison, coins have one side common to all twelve countries (like the banknotes) symbolizing a common European identity and a reverse side specific to each country, symbolizing the particularity and distinctness of each country.  Thus, the coins symbolize diversity in unity (Germany 2003 Calendar; week 22, 03).                           

             Banknotes.  The Austrian artist Robert Kalina of the Austrian National Bank designed the banknotes.  The banknotes have a map of Europe on the back and the European flag on the front.  If a specific country decided to put a distinguishing national symbol on the bills, such a symbol would replace the European flag (http://www.euro.gouv.fr; 20 December 01 accessed).  The front side of the notes includes windows, arches, and gateways which symbolize the European spirit of openness, cooperation and economic opportunity (European Journal).  The twelve stars of the European Union represent the dynamism and harmony between European nations.  On the backside of the bills are bridges symbolizing close cooperation, communication and connection between Europe and the rest of the world as well as strong ties among the European countries themselves.

             Kalina was very particular and precise when it came to his drawings.  The architecture on both sides of the bills represents different architectural styles throughout the centuries--the lower the value of the bill, the older the architectural style.  The five-note bill represents the Classical style (from the first to the fourth centuries); the ten-note bill represents the Romanesque style (ninth to twelfth centuries); the twenty-note bill represents the Gothic style (twelfth to fifteenth centuries); the fifty-note bill represents the Renaissance style (sixteenth century); the 100-note bill represents Baroque and Rococo (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries); the 200-note bill represents Iron and Glass (nineteenth century) and the 500-note bill represents High-Rise Buildings and Suspension Bridges (modern twentieth century architecture).  Careful thought also went into the design of the bridges on the notes.  Bridges had to look real and stable.  Poorly constructed bridges might lead one to think that the countries they represented were not stable and couldn’t be trusted. 

             Besides the map, flags, architectural styles, and bridges, one can also find other features on the bank notes.  The name “euro” appears in both the Latin (“EURO”) and Greek (“EYPΩ”) characters on the bank notes, since both alphabets are in current use in the European Union.  One can also find the initials of the European Central Bank in five linguistic variants, covering the eleven official languages of the European Community.  And, as one would expect, the signature of the President of the European Central Bank next to the initials of the bank (euro.gouv.fr).

             Kalina was also open to suggestions as he designed the bank notes.  When criticism was voiced concerning the absence of islands and departments belonging to the various European countries, Kalina added the Shetland Islands (Great Britain), the Azores (Portugal), the Canary Islands (Spain), the four overseas French departments (French Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion), etc. (European Journal).

             There are also various features to help the visually impaired.  The bills are in different sizes, according to their value.  They have dominant colors, with contrasting colors for pairs of banknotes in sequence.  For example, the EUR Ten banknote is red and the EUR Twenty is blue.  Values are printed in large numerals.  The bills are printed in relief [can be perceived by touch] using a special printing method known as intaglio.  The EUR 200 and EUR 500 bills have tactile marks printed in intaglio and positioned along their edges (ecb).

             Coins.  Luc Luycx of the Royal Belgium Mint designed the euro coins.  One side of the coin features one of three designs common to all twelve euro area countries showing different maps of the European Union against a background of parallel lines linking the twelve stars of the European Union flag.  The one-, two- and five-cent coins depict Europe’s place in the world as a tiny globe with the outlines of the European continent; the ten-, twenty- and fifty-cent coins depict Europe as a group of individual nations; the EUR One and EUR Two coins represent a united Europe without frontiers (ecb).  Luycx consciously included the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden in his design and also left some scope to include prospective European Union member states at a later stage (Deutsche Welle; accessed 10 January 2002).  The reverse side of the coins shows individual designs relating to the respective member state, surrounded by twelve stars.  For example, on Germany’s EUR One and EUR Two coins the eagle, the symbol of German sovereignty, is featured; on France’s ten-, twenty- and fifty- cent coins is the sower, representing France, which stays true to itself while integrating into Europe; and Italy’s EUR One coin features Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing illustrating the ideal proportions of the human body.

             The composition of the coins differs according to their value.  The small denominations (one, two, and five cents) are made of copper-covered steel.  The medium denominations (ten, twenty, and fifty cents) are made from a copper-aluminum alloy, known as Nordic gold.  The most difficult coins to produce are the large One and Two euros, which have two three-layered rings containing a nickel-brass and a copper alloy (http://expressindia.com; accessed 18 September 2002).  It is rather interesting that the nickel used in the EUR One and EUR Two coins is “100 times greater than the European Union directive’s upper limit,” which can cause eczema (dermatitis) for those who are allergic to nickel (Deutsche Welle; 10 January 02 accessed).  University of Zurich researchers conducted a study in which “they coated euros in artificial sweat and found the coins released 240 to 320 times the amount of nickel permitted under European Union regulations-and more than pure nickel itself.”  The combination of nickel-brass and a copper alloy “encourages corrosion as metal ions flow from one alloy to the other” (Courier Journal).

             For the visually impaired, the coins can be distinguished by shape, color, edge, weight, and thickness.  The heaviest have the highest value, except for the EUR One coin, which weighs less than the fifty-cent coin.  The fifty-cent coin is the thickest and the EUR One coin is thicker than the EUR Two coin.  In descending value, the other coins are gradually thinner and lighter in weight.  The values are prominently displayed on the common side, and milled edges, as well as familiar national motifs engraved on the reverse side, help one to recognize the different values (ecb).

             Several security measures were taken to prevent counterfeiting of the new currency.4  The actual euro bills are printed on fiduciary paper (paper that can’t be redeemed in gold or silver) with a cotton fiber base, which gives them a particular texture.  The print on the banknote is raised.  The banknotes’ watermark reveals an image and the monetary value of the bill.  The notes also contain a security thread and a see-through register.  On the front side (to the right) there is a metallic, holographic (three-dimensional) stripe on the five, ten and twenty euros; a hologram foil patch of a shifting image of the euro and the number identifying the monetary value of the bill can be found on higher value banknotes.  On the backside, the five, ten and twenty euro bills have a shiny iridescent (displaying changing colors) stripe; on higher value banknotes color-shifting ink has been used (ECB).5  To further prevent forgery, the EUR One and EUR Two coins use sophisticated bi-metal technology and the EUR Two coin has lettering around the edge.  The number “2” is followed by two stars which are followed by an upside-down “2”, which is followed by two stars and then the same lettering begins again until a complete circle has been made (Deutsche Welle; accessed 10 January 2002).                                                                                                         

Introduction of the Euro

 A number of steps were taken to introduce the new currency into Euroland.  On December 31, 1998, at 2:00 p.m., the conversion rate for the euro for each participating country was irrevocably fixed.6  It was the only rate to be used for conversion between the euro and the national currency, or for conversion between the national currency units.  Concurrently, Euro area member states began implementing a common monetary policy.  The euro was recognized as the primary legal currency among the member states, with national currencies subordinate to the euro.

            In addition to the members of Euroland, several other countries, largely for financial and economic reasons, decided to use the euro.  Kosovo and Montenegro chose to use the new currency since each country adopted the German mark in September and November 1999, respectively.  However, unlike the proper members of the euro zone, they have no right to print and mint the euro.  Kosovo and Montenegro must also buy euros, which they can do from Germany and Austria (Deutsche Welle; 21 December 2001).  Vatican City, an independent state inside Rome, Italy, also chose to the euro as its official currency, and was given permission to produce and mint euro coins engraved with the left profile of the Pope.  The words “Citta del Vaticano” (Vatican City) and twelve stars symbolizing the countries of the euro zone surround the Pontiff’s profile (Le Figaro; 1 November 2001).  Finally, Monaco, a [sovereign] principality in southeastern France, which had used French currency, and San Marino, a small republic in eastern Italy, which had used Italian currency, decided to use the new currency with special images.

             January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2001, marked a transition period toward full use of the euro as a legal currency.  During this two-year period, individual persons, businesses, or institutions could pay or be paid in national currencies or in euros as long as payment was made by check or bank card.  Cash transactions were prohibited.

            Not everyone Euroland was pleased with the adoption of a new currency.  Many persons were hesitant to give up use of their national currency.  National currencies symbolized national identity and pride.  For example, the German mark had come to symbolize Germany’s financial and economic recovery from World War II.  Many citizens within Euroland were also worried that a sudden increase in prices of consumer goods would accompany the introduction of the euro.  Finally, many senior adults were very apprehensive about using the new currency.  Anxieties over how to convert national currencies to euros as well as fears about possible fraudulent conversions of “old” currency to the new one were common among the elderly. (Le Figaro; 17 December 2001). 

             To counter such anxieties and worries several strategies were employed.  First of all, efforts were made to introduce children to the euro.  It was thought that young children could help introduce parents to the euro and, hopefully, lessen hesitancy about the new currency.  To this end, many games, such as Europoly (a European version of Monopoly) were created and marketed to children between the ages of five and twelve.  Another strategy involved the marketing of monuments of European capitals.  Such items were sold using the euro in order to encourage use of the new currency (Journal Français 3).  Finally, various ways to educated people how to recognize forgeries of the banknotes and coins were introduced.  For example, “German police . . . introduced a special internet website with an interactive computer game.  In ‘The Funny Money Advisor,’ players [had] to recognize four differences between real euro notes and forgeries.” (Deutsche Welle; 3 January 2002).

            In mid-December 2001, banks, post offices, and, in some countries, retail outlets received starter kits designed to familiarize employees and the general public with the new euro coins.7  On January 1, 2002, the euro banknotes and coins were introduced in the twelve member states of the European Union.  The tiny island of la Réunion, an overseas department of France, was the first European territory to change to the euro.  The first purchase with a euro coin was a kilo of “lychées” (nuts) (Le Figaro; 1 January 2002).  After la Réunion experienced the currency changeover, Greece and Finland followed.  One hour later, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands celebrated the change (Deutsche Welle; 2 January 2002).  In France, Laurent Fabius, the Minister of Economy and Finances, wished the French people a “bonne (good) et  eurose (instead of ‘heureuse’ [happy]) année (year)” (Le Figaro; 1 January 2002).  Since January 1 was a holiday, the new currency could only be withdrawn from the Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), which began dispensing euro banknotes at midnight, Monday, December 31, 2001.  “Aside from bars and clubs, much of Europe was closed on January 1, 2002, reserving the euro’s major test for January 2” (Deutsche Welle; 2 January 2002).  In fact, on January 2, many Germans and Dutch people stood outside in temperature near ten degrees below zero to exchange marks and gilders for euros (Deutsche Welle; 9 January 2002).                                                                                                                                                                                

            Fanfare and celebration marked the introduction of the euro.  In the very heart of the financial center (Willy Brandt Square) in Frankfurt, Germany, a large celebration took place on the eve of the currency’s full-use introduction in the European Union.  “A massive screen [showed] New Year’s Eve television shows from all the twelve Euroland countries.”  Musicians from the twelve countries of the EU were spread out over twenty stories of the skyscraper, the half-constructed Galileo Turm, and played together.  The official euro song, “With Open Arms,” a mix of classical and rap music, was sung live for the first time.  “The song bids goodbye to the national currencies of Europe and heralds the birth of a single common currency.  As the clock struck midnight and the euro [was] born, the curtain [was] raised on [an] imposing 15-meter-high official euro sculpture. . . .  The twelve stars swirling freely around the euro sign opposite the European Central Bank building, stand for the members of the currency’s union and symbolize the preserving of a national identity in spite of the union” (Deutsche Welle; 30 December 2001). 

             During the changeover period from January 1, 2002, to February 28 (February 18 in France),8 euro countries could pay in either their national currencies or in euros.  Germany was the exception to this policy--retailers were not legally bound to accept national currencies alongside the euro (Deutsche Welle; 31 December 2001).  However, in all countries, customers would receive change only in euros. 

            What were the countries to do with national currencies?  The old money was to be recycled, if possible.  French bills (and perhaps bills in the other countries) cannot be recycled because they contain noxious chemical matter.  The coins, however, can be melted and their metal recycled to make new coins (euros or foreign currency), electronic chips, etc.  The nickel can be resold in the raw material market (Dewey 1187).

            Within the first six months of full use of the new currency, the euro received its first honor, a sign of success.  On May 9, 2002, the European Central Bank president, Wim Duisenberg, accepted the 2002 Charlemagne Prize on behalf of the euro.9  The award is presented each year to a person or institution contributing significantly to Europe and European integration.  The fact that the award was bestowed upon the euro signified the importance of the euro, which, as explained by the commission spokesman, “will be far more than the common method of payment in Europe…  It will contribute to a common European identity, stabilize the community and so encourage peace” (Germany; 14 December 2001).

Conclusion

Much thought was put into the creation of the euro.  Despite fears of losing national sovereignty and the negative impact of the new currency upon national pride, Euroland countries need not worry about losing their identity.  In the opinion of this author, the euro should make the European Union stronger, drawing the countries even closer together and enabling them to economically compete more successfully with other countries, such as the United States and Japan.  Ongoing problems and concerns persist, such as dealing with forgeries and counterfeiters as well as the strength or weakness of the euro against other currencies, such as the US dollar.  However, this author predicates that those individuals, institutions, and even, sovereign states, which harbor a deep pessimism, or outright opposition, against the euro will likely change their perspective as they become more confident through the use of the new currency.  Hopefully, they will be able to look back with nostalgia at their old money and look to the future with pride in the new currency. The leaders of France and Germany wonderfully captured such a “let’s-not-look-back-but-only-toward-the-future” optimism and faith regarding the importance of the euro: French Prime Minister of France, Lionel Jospin, declared “…adieu le franc, vive l’euro.” (“…goodbye to the franc, long live the euro.”) (Le Figaro; 30 December 2001); and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder quoted a line from a Beatles’ song: “‘I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello’”  (Deutsche Welle; 31 December 2001).

End Notes

            1 All quotations from French sources were translated by this author.

            2 At present, there are fifteen countries in the European Union.  In Euroland, officially known as the European Economic and Monetary Union or Euro Zone, there are twelve member countries: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. In order to become a member of Euroland, one must be a member state of the European Union, manage the national accounts in accordance with strict criteria for balanced budgets and national debt without foregoing continental standards of social welfare, make a formal political decision to adopt the new currency, the euro, and, finally, ask the European Union’s permission to be a member of the euro zone (Deutsche Welle, 21 December 2001).  “With a population of 303 million, the Euro Zone is markedly larger than its closest competitors, the United States (276 million) and Japan (127 million)” (GermanyOnline).

            3 Later versions of Microsoft Word have keyboard combinations to create the euro symbol (€), such as Alt + 0128 on the number pad at right on the keyboard.

            4 In addition to the security measures incorporated in the production of the banknotes and coins, Euroland countries also employed a number of other methods to prevent counterfeit.  For example, in France, in order to dissuade counterfeiters, samples of the euro given to the public prior to circulation on January 1, 2002, were incomplete; they bore neither the colors nor the definitive designs nor the security measures necessary to prevent counterfeiting (Dewey 1188).

            5 The European Central Bank may add radio-frequency identification tags to larger bills (Information Week). 

            6 To convert national currencies to euros, six decimal figures had to be used, no more or no less (Dewey 1184).  “The value of the euro was determined by averaging the conversion rates of the currencies of the twelve participating countries” (Germany Online).  The rate for the French franc, for example, was calculated as follows:  At the time of conversion, one French franc equaled one French franc.  A certain number of German marks equaled one French franc; a certain number of Italian lira equaled one French franc, and so on for the other nine countries.  The numbers were then added together to get a final figure.  This figure divided by twelve resulted in the number of “francs” in one euro.  So, for France, one euro was equal to 6.55957 francs.

            To convert from a national currency to euros, one would divide the amount in the national currency by the number of national units per euro. For example, 125 German marks divided by 1.95583 marks per euro equals 63.9114 euros. After the conversion, the value would be rounded off to two decimal places (63.91 euros). To convert from euros to a national currency, one would multiply the number of national units per euro by the number of euros.  For example, ten euros multiplied by 6.55957 francs per euro equals 65.5957 francs (rounded off to 65.60 francs (Dewey 1184).

            On January 1, 1999, the day after the establishment of the conversion rate, one euro equaled $1.18.  A year later, one euro equaled $.88.  The dollar continued to fluctuate in the year 2000 ($.82 in October--a record low) and the following years.  On July 15, 2002, one euro equaled exactly one dollar.

            7 France, Ireland and the Netherlands were the first countries to receive them, followed by Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Italy and Spain.  Greece, Portugal and Germany were the last countries to employ the kits (Deutsche Welle; 18 December 01).

            8 France decided to shorten the dual time period in order to have it coincide with the end of the national retail sales.  It was a perfect time to get rid of the biggest French bills before February 18 (News from France 02).

             9 The award is named after Charlemagne, the 9th-century emperor, who united Western Europe from his throne at Aachen, Germany.  Previous recipients include Henry Kissinger (1987), Tony Blair (1999) and Bill Clinton (2000).

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