Monetary Union: Last-minute rush to get the euro into your pocket

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The Independent Online
Brussels has told EU member states to start preparing consumers, shops, businesses and national administrations for the huge upheaval which switching to the euro in 1999 will entail. This brings Britain's dilemma over membership into even sharper focus, writes Katherine Butler.

With talk of delay in economic and monetary union (EMU) fading into the background and just seven months to go before the selection of the first batch of currencies to join, the European Commission is giving governments an end-of-year deadline to finalise the outstanding practical and legal groundwork for the introduction of the euro.

Urgent decisions are needed on such things as how government departments will deal with the switchover and how public-debt issuers will treat new issues in euros.

But fearing psychological trauma among ordinary citizens, the commission also wants governments to launch or intensify public education campaigns. This follows warnings from consumer groups and retailers who believe that public awareness lags severely behind the pace of political pressure for a single currency.

The fears are obvious. How will people cope with prices labelled in what will seem like a foreign currency? Will elderly people stop spending money because they fear the shopkeepers are swindling them? Will mass confusion reign if the new notes and coins start circulating on the first day of the January sales?

Efforts to inform the public up to now have been amateurish in the face of the revolution in store. A "Euro-barge" financed by the European Union was dispatched up the Rhine earlier this summer dispensing leaflets to bewildered tourists. And some banks have set up hotlines to deal with questions from people worried about their savings plans or mortgages. But the commission is now urging governments to prepare for mass education campaigns to run between May 1998 and January 1999.

In the meantime, the focus will be on encouraging training for retailers, bank tellers, consumer groups, and those who will have to act as troubleshooters in the confusion. The commission is also examining whether laws will be needed to protect consumers against high conversion charges during the transition.

The decision to reserve one side of the new coins for "national" symbols peculiar to each member state is intended to enhance public acceptance, but so far only the French and Germans have chosen their designs. Yves Thibualt de Silguy, commissioner for the single currency, now wants the remaining candidate countries to unveil theirs before the end of the year so production of coins can begin from May 1998.

The administrative challenge is also enormous, the commission admits: national administrations will have to be be revolutionised, for example to allow companies and individuals to make tax returns in euros. In some countries this will become a possibility as early as 1999 even though notes and coins will not be in circulation until 2002.

Information systems will also have to be adapted and the commission warns that the changes will coincide with massive upheaval caused by the problem of the turn-of-the-century date change - the threat that many computer systems will cease to function properly from 2000. Because keyboards will have to accommodate the new euro symbol, manufacturers need to start preparing new models now.

Banks and big corporations in most member states are at an advanced stage of preparation but the lack of awareness among small businesses was "frightening", the EU industry commissioner Martin Bangemann admitted yesterday.

Mr de Silguy said yesterday that British officials were cooperating fully in discussions on the technical preparations for EMU. That will offer little comfort however to British businesses or retailers who still have no idea whether their customers will still be paying for goods in sterling when their European neighbours are counting their cash in euros.