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No toss-up for this one

BILL KIRKMAN


In Kosovo ... Duplicate five and 10 Euro notes (left) and genuine ones (right). The duplicates were distributed to familiarise citizens with the new currency but police feel they could be exploited and have urged people to destroy them.

WHEN 12 of the 15 members of the European Union replaced their currencies by the Euro at the beginning of the year the change — described by a Greek newspaper Kathimerini as "the greatest monetary integration in human history"— provoked understandably widespread media interest.

In the United Kingdom, one of the three EU states (along with Denmark and Sweden), which have not adopted the new currency, the event provided the impetus for yet another bout of Europhobia on the part of those for whom anything European is a disaster waiting to happen.

Opposition politicians attempted to show that the Government was backing away from its policy of waiting until economic criteria have been met before putting the issue to the electorate in a referendum. Great excitement was shown when a minister suggested that the decision would be a political one. It is hard to see what all the fuss was about. There is surely nothing inconsistent in a decision based on satisfying economic criteria and a decision, which is essentially political; economics and politics are not, and surely cannot be, mutually exclusive.

To the question: "Should Britain join the Euro or remain outside it?" I do not feel qualified to provide an answer, and since the question is not going to be put in the immediate future I do not feel that that is a handicap.

I do feel qualified to make a judgment on some of the coverage of the event itself: the move to the new currency. There were of course predictions that the whole thing would break down in chaos. I say "of course" because the prediction of chaos is part of the stock in trade of many commentators. (Remember the predictions at the turn of the millennium.)


Shopping with the new Euro in France.

In the event, things went generally smoothly, and the stories had therefore to be changed to "chaos avoided". There were some relatively minor hitches.

Cashpoints were overworked. Some shopkeepers had temporary trouble working out change between one currency and another. But that sort of thing is only to be expected with any change, and it does not take long for the difficulties to evaporate as familiarity, to misquote, breeds contentment.


An old man dressed in a outfit covered with coins witnesses the draw of the "El Nio" Lottery — the first draw that takes place in Euros in Spain.

It was interesting to listen to a radio interview with shopkeepers in Newry, a Northern Ireland town near the border with the Irish Republic. They had no difficulty with the new currency, pointing out that they had for years been used to dealing in two currencies — the pound and the Irish punt.

For my generation, any change of currency is bound to be a doddle in practical terms, whatever we may think of its desirability. For we spent our early lives (in my case, about 40 years) coping with the total illogicality of pounds, shillings and pence. Knowing that there were 12 pennies to the shilling, and 20 shillings to the pound, was second nature. And we did not even balk at the half crown (30 pence), of which there were eight to the pound.

In the 1960s I did a lot of broadcasting for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). And they paid the fee in guineas (21 shillings). Many professional people — lawyers notably — charged in guineas. (When you think of it, it was quite a cunning way of adding five per cent to the charge. I certainly did not object to that the other way round, when the BBC cheques arrived.)

People became alarmed at the prospect of conversion to decimal currency in the 1970s, though it was manifestly going to be simpler than all that.

The point is that what you are used to is normal, and dealing with it is a matter of course. Change (in the case of decimal currency, to something far simpler for calculation) can be more worrying than staying with the complicated. I remember the elderly owner of a betting shop in my village who flatly refused to adopt decimal currency; he was happier working out the odds in pounds, shillings and pence. And I like to think that the conversation between two old ladies on the bus at the time of decimal conversion was genuine rather than apocryphal. When one grumbled about having to learn about the new money, the other sympathised: "Yes, they ought to have waited until all the old people had died."


And finally Britain ... The launch of a "no" anti-Euro campaign in London.

It may be that Britain will not join the Euro until "all the old people have died". If so, that decision will be politico-economic. The practical challenge, as the rest of Europe has demonstrated, is no challenge at all.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at wpk1000@cam.ac.uk

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