Getting used to the euro

It’s not the colour of your money; it’s whether it’s convertible

Getting used to the euro
By John Ryle  •  December 1996  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Posted 2016  •  1,120 words

The design is a mess; the name has no mojo. But I guess we’ll get used to the euro. In Britain we’ve already coped with decimalization, with the loss of shillings and pence, and half-crowns and florins and farthings—not to speak of guineas and groats. Why not the pound sterling too?  (If we replace our currency completely and leave sterling behind, perhaps we will find some novel use for that keyboard curiosity, the £ symbol.)

Reflect also that this curly L, denoting the pound, and the S for shillings and the D for pence—in the three-tier system that we finally abandoned back in 1971—have their origin in a much older imperial currency, in the librae, soldi and denarii of Ancient Rome. If we join the euro zone it won’t be the first time our money supply has been controlled from outside the country.

It would have been good to have followed classical precedent and, rather than calling the new pan-european currency the euro, to have drawn on Latin to find a name for it. Or to have stayed with the ecu, a historical unit of currency in Iberia that is also, neatly, an acronym for European Currency Unit. Either of these would have been a more elegant solution than lopping a syllable off the name of the goddess who gave our continent its name.

So euros they will be, but surely the new bank notes could have been given some mythological gravitas, say with an engraving of Europa’s fabled abduction by the God of War in the form of a bull, rather than the very dull maps and bridges that feature on the published design? France and Switzerland have a tradition of beautiful bank note design; currency that looks as though it is worth something. If the Germans are to run the fiscal side of things when it comes to the new money, why not give the French responsibility for graphic design?

The heartsink feeling of hyperinflation

It’s too late, though. As with so much else in the European Union, the decisions have been taken without any public debate. We are stuck with the maps and bridges. The euro it is and will remain, at least until someone invents a nickname for it. Suggestions on a postcard, please (or else on a bank note, of any currency or denomination).

As I say, euros are something we could get used to—at least if we have enough of them. It seems that the European Monetary Institute expects us to be rich: the lowest denomination unveiled at the Dublin summit on Friday was a five euro note, while the highest was 500, which is the equivalent, depending on the final exchange rate, of 300 or 400 pounds sterling. That’s more money than a lot of people in this country see in a week. The Institute is leaving lower denominations to the discretion of member states: so it’s up to the Bank of England whether or not we find a one euro coin in our Christmas puddings in 2002—assuming Britain has joined the currency union by then.

The euro, we are told, will save us from inflation, because German bankers hate inflation more than anything. And it’s certainly true that the most important thing about a currency is that it should keep its value. Those who have lived in countries suffering from hyperinflation know the heart-sink feeling of waking up and realising that the money you have is worth five or ten per cent less than it was yesterday, with prices that increase every day, savings that dwindle to nothing and dreams that turn to ashes. Hyperinflation erodes public confidence in the future. The last country in Europe to experience such a freefall was Germany in the 1920s. It’s no wonder that the Bundesbank is obsessed with keeping inflation down.

Banknotes and wheelbarrows

When I was in Uganda a few years ago the local Ugandan shilling had been reduced to a value of less than one hundredth of a US cent. It was still falling. If you wanted to know how much money you had, it took too long to count it: you had to weigh it. (Old bank notes, curiously, weigh the same as new ones, the accumulated grime making up for the wear on the paper.) On that occasion I travelled to the North of the country with six or seven kilograms of Ugandan bank notes in order to buy fuel and food: 1000-shilling notes in bundles of five hundred packed tight in an attaché-case. It felt like carrying the proceeds of a drug deal, or a bank heist.

Northern Uganda is an area suffering severely from the privations of a long civil war. During the trip I discussed the evils of inflation with Joseph, a driver for the organisation I was working for there. I mentioned that it had been like this in Germany in the 1920s, and repeated a story from that time that my mother first told me. Money was worth so little in Germany then, she explained, that housewives had to go to market with wheelbarrows full of banknotes in order to buy bread.

But even this falls short of the reality of poverty in rural Uganda today. Joseph thought about my remark for a moment, then he said:

So where did they get the wheelbarrows?”

As a driver for an international NGO Joseph was better off then most of his compatriots. He told me that he had been trying to buy a car, but couldn’t carry enough money to pay for it, even in a suitcase. He had to hire a taxi to carry the cash from the bank to the vendor’s place. It took them all day to count it. And of course, like me, he then needed to carry another bag of money in order to buy fuel for his vehicle.

The Ugandan banknotes we had to carry in such ridiculous quantities are beautiful to look at. They are works of art, with engraved scenes from rural and urban life in Uganda rendered in beautiful shades of red and green. The design for the euro, by contrast, is nondescript. But the euro is hard currency and the Ugandan shilling isn’t. In the end what matters is not the colour of your money, but whether it is convertible or not. That’s the truth of the matter. The Ugandan shilling belongs, at best, in the national bank. But the euro, as Joseph and I both knew, belongs with dollars and Swiss francs, beyond state borders, secure, or relatively secure—as secure as you can get in this changing world—up there in the lucrosphere. ★