The euro starts life with a squabble

Believe it or not, this is history in the making ...

FIFTEEN men in suits yesterday made history over a long lunch on the 50th floor of the Justus Lipsius Building, named after a little- known Flemish humanist. At a stroke the grey gathering replaced 11 European currencies, including the German mark and the French franc, with the euro.

As usual, though, there first had to be an embarrassing eurosquabble, over whether a faceless Frenchman or an equally obscure Dutchman would head the new European Central Bank. Tony Blair eventually triumphed with the deal trailed for days: Wim Duisenberg will officially take the job for the full eight years, but will voluntarily bow to the French candidate, Jean-Claude Trichet, half way through the term, in 2002. But the French demanded written confirmation of the fudge, clearly violating the Maastricht Treaty and outraging Mr Duisenberg's German backers.

By the time all this had been sorted out, after midnight, any sense of celebration had evaporated. Samples of the 20 euro note were handed out like confetti at the summit, but the euro coins and notes will not begin to circulate until January 2002. The gloomy skies, and the lack of any public manifestation of joy in the streets, belied the historic nature of the events taking place behind the plate glass windows of the EU headquarters. It was a Belgian bank holiday, and the burghers of Brussels were away for the May Day weekend.

Dulled by years of preparation, some of those attending the birth of the euro were slow to appreciate its significance, although one noted British eurosceptic writer announced: "We are witnessing history." Britain's past marginalisation under Margaret Thatcher and John Major was replaced by the new mood of co-operation under Mr Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who emphasised his warm support for the new currency. "It is the beginning of a new era for our continent," commented Mr Brown. Did he say error? No: on the eve of the meeting he had predicted that the euro would be a success.

Friction in Brussels yesterday may be echoed in London tomorrow. Currency markets are open in spite of the holiday, amid fears of a flight from the euro-currencies into sterling. The Emperor Charlemagne never had this problem when he introduced Europe's first single currency, based on silver, 1,100 years ago.

Dawn of the euro, page 14, and Business

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