Personal Finance: 10 tub-thumping facts about the euro

Such as some people call it the `Curo' or the `Equarder', and you can get a million pounds' worth in a briefcase. Isabel Berwick reports
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The Independent Online
We're all sick of the euro - and trading in the new currency hasn't even begun yet. But it is going to dominate the political and economic agenda in 1999, so you may as well find out what all the fuss is about. Make it your New Year's Resolution to learn 10 interesting things about the euro.

1. Yes, this crazy idea was dreamed up in the Sixties.

Back then, the UK was not a member of what we called the Common Market. We looked on as the usual sandal-wearing suspects (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - plus Italy) decided to make economic love, not war. In 1969 the European Summit approved a proposal to create an Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The plans were expected to take 10 years. Thirty years later ...

2. Half the UK population has no idea what is going on.

Last month the BBC2 Money Programme polled 1,000 representative people and found 51 per cent were unable to name the new single currency. Good guesses included "Curo" and "Eu". Fashionable guesses included "Ecru". Only hopeless people guessed "Equarder". Asked how much one euro was worth in Real Money, estimates varied from 1p to pounds 8. In fact it's about 70p.

3. The euro will make life cheaper.

Because the UK is no longer isolated, we'll be aware how much more we pay for food and clothes. With any luck, retailers will have to respond by dropping prices. The internet boom will also mean you'll be able to order cheaper euro-goods from abroad using a credit card.

4. You can carry a million pounds' worth of euros in one briefcase.

There will be a 500 euro note, worth pounds 350. Which would mean pounds 1m in euros could conveniently fit in a briefcase. A million pounds in pounds 50 notes would take up four cases, which attracts attention. The euro is the ideal way to carry your ill-gotten gains around a Europe without internal borders. This is just one of many reasons why the euro may displace the dollar as the international criminal's currency of choice. To combat this, Europol - the new police force of Euroland - started work last October.

5. Those old-fashioned currencies are already dead.

Shoppers and workers from Paris to Pisa will handle their francs and lire until 2002, but the business side of these currencies is in effect dead. The value of each currency against the euro was fixed last Thursday and that's where it will stay forever.

From Monday, businesses across Europe will accept cash in the local currency but will run all their payment and accounting systems in euros. Government and corporate bond issues will be in euros, although each issuer will still be able to set the interest rates it pays on its bonds.

6. You can impress your neighbours with a euro-mortgage.

Barclays and Abbey National have the first euro-mortgage deals, with an interest rate reflecting the European Central Bank rate of 3 per cent across Euroland (except Italy). This gives a euro-mortgage rate of about 5 per cent. That sounds good when you are paying UK variable rates of 7.6 per cent, but if sterling collapsed against the euro, your payments would be worth dramatically less. You would have to pay more each month to compensate for the lower value of each pound paid.

7. Six people have supreme power over 300 million others.

Six executives control the European Central Bank (ECB), oversee the single currency and set interest rates. They can't be sacked for eight years, and officially they only have to report to the European Parliament once a year. Scary.

8. Delaying euro notes and coins until 2002 is a ploy to deter criminals.

When euros appear in 2002, Europeans will be used to the idea and won't (allegedly) get confused. So it will be harder to palm off faked notes, or short-change customers. Each country will have up to six months to phase out its old currency in favour of universal euro notes plus coins bearing a national symbol. All euro notes have gates and windows on the front - "symbols of openness and co-operation in the EU". On the ba ck you'll see a bridge from a particular age - "a metaphor for communication among the people of Europe". These are generic bridges, so no one is offended. One of the original designs showed a bridge that looked too French; it was scrapped.

9. Euroland is the size of the US. Even without Britain, the single currency zone compares well to the States. Its economic output was almost equal to the US before the launch of the euro, and most of Europe (though not Britain) is now growing faster than the US. If the euro does challeng e the dollar as a world currency, it will take a long time to get there. Despite the dominance of the US, sterling remained the most important currency until World War II. Pro-euro commentators believe the dollar and the euro will each handle 40 per cent of world finance eventually.

10. The euro symbol suggests civilisation and stability. The E with two bars is a homage to the Greek letter epsilon, representing the cradle of civilisation, and, more prosaically, the E of Europe. The two straight bars represent the stability of the currency (we hope).