The euro, coming sooner than you think to a shop near you near you

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The Independent Online
BRITONS HOLIDAYING on the other side of the Channel this summer could not fail to notice, with a jolt, that most supermarkets have started to display prices in euros.

The French edition of Marie Claire even advised its fashion-conscious readers where to buy the most stylish calculators for converting francs into the new currency.

The launch of the euro on the Continent is just eight weeks away, and it would be a mistake to see it as something that is only happening over there. As the Government recognises, it will be happening here too - even without Britain's formal membership.

The scope for a privatised euro to take off in the UK is immense, and the signs are that use of the currency will spread, regardless of Britain's non-membership. The City of London and big businesses will obviously have to be able to cope with the switch from the individual European currencies to the euro, but smaller companies and individuals will also find they need or want to use euros, too.

The Government has already signalled its intention to make this easy. It has made arrangements for companies to pay taxes and file accounts in euros rather than sterling, and will allow them to list share prices in euros and cents instead of pounds and pence.

From 1 January, therefore, any business that wants to do so will be able to operate as if Britain had in fact joined the single currency.

Big multinationals will almost certainly do so, for failingto switch to euros would put them at a disadvantage in doing business. The single currency is the crucial building block in the creation of a genuine single market; those operating outside the currency will not have equal access to the market.

The big firms are, in turn, pressuring suppliers to deal with them in euros. And indeed, any exporter, regardless of size, will have a big incentive to operate in the same currency as its Continental competitors.

With all their buying and selling, taxation and accounting operations taking place in euros, some firms will be tempted to offer their UK employees the option of being paid in euros. The wage bill would, after all, be their last source of uncertainty about the impact of exchange-rate fluctuations.

And after the pain of suffering from a strong pound for more than two years, eliminating that has big attractions for most employers. It could appeal to any employees who calculate that the pound is likely to lose value against the single European currency, betting on the likely movement of the foreign exchanges. But for most individuals it is an offer that will hold little appeal to start with, for they will still be spending in pounds. However, use of the euro could spread surprisingly swiftly.

The Government has indicated that individuals, too, will be able to pay their taxes in the new currency if they choose. The Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will accept payment of any tax bill in euros from 1 January.

The temptation for big companies operating across Europe to convert all of their financial affairs - including UK salaries and PAYE - is pretty obvious.

Some retailers, such as Marks & Spencer, have said their stores will accept payment in euros.

This will suit tourists but also anybody wanting to use up their holiday currency without paying the fee for changing it back into pounds.

People who travel a lot to the Continent might well be tempted to open a bank account in euros, specifically to save on those charges and eliminate the hassle of changing money.

Big banks, including high- street names like NatWest and Abbey National, are actively looking at introducing specialist accounts because market research indicates there is enough potential interest to make it worthwhile. The first euro products for savers have already been launched, and Citibank yesterday launched a current account for customers who want to be able to write euro cheques.

In fact, it will not be too far into the future before a real enthusiast could opt to become a citizen of the euro-economy rather than the British economy, with their pay, taxes, savings and mortgage denom- inated in the new currency. They could end up needing sterling only for small-change spending at the corner shop.

This may seem a little far-fetched before the event, but in practice such bandwagons can start rolling unstoppably. The more people and businesses switch from sterling to euros, the bigger the incentive for everybody else to do so, and the critical mass can be reached surprisingly swiftly.

This is the explanation for the Government's relentless emphasis on the need for everybody in the UK to have made the necessary practical preparations, despite the fact that the country is not going to join the first wave.

In practice, Britain is so interlinked with Europe that membership of the single currency is, in some ways, merely a formality. We will end up using the euro whether we join or not - and this realisation makes joining a far more appealing prospect.