Euro tries television to gain currency

Signs of panic over public ignorance of the single currency are showing up, reports Sarah Helm in Brussels
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In an anonymous office block somewhere in Brussels, television executives from all over Europe gathered last week to listen to a confused and desperate cry for help.

The European Commission invited the TV chiefs to Brussels to appeal for assistance in promoting "a citizens' Europe". In particular, the commission wanted them to promote Europe's single currency. With the 1999 deadline for the euro's launch looming, and notes and coins due to be circulating two years later, time for winning people over to the currency is running out. There are signs that the commission is starting to panic.

The barely publicised meeting was an unprecedented and controversial initiative. Bypassing national governments and asking television companies to take the euro message direct to the people was bound to bring accusations of political propaganda.

"Sensitising" was how the Brussels information directorate, DG10, chose to describe its efforts, which included offering the companies indigestible Euro videos for viewers to chew over with their TV suppers. "A turn-off" was how the meeting was generally regarded by the rest of those present. Wheeling out two commissioners, Yves Thibault de Silguy and Marcelino Oreja, along with other stars of the Brussels firmament to talk about "a citizens' Europe" was hardly the way to inspire the imagination of Europe's news and entertainment bosses.

Andrew Brann, head of co-productions for Channel 4, said the ideas the commission was promoting were "incredibly tedious" and "too unsophisticated" for presentation to the public. "They just don't seem to understand how TV works," he said.

Ross Biggan, head of European affairs for ITV, said: "To be honest, we almost had to ask the commission what they wanted from us, it was so unclear. If they want to be more open, that is a good thing. But they can't expect us to promote the euro while it remains a subject of such political and economic controversy."

It was the latest example of how Europe is failing to promote the single currency in anything but a piecemeal and haphazard way. The task of designing the future European Central Bank, the "stability pact" and other pillars of the EMU architecture are going very well. But as Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, recently asked: "How are are we going to explain these new notes and coins to Mrs McTavish? How will she know what they are for?"

With the start of monetary union just two years away, the EU publicity machine should by now be ready to move into full swing. Never in the community's history has there been such a public relations challenge: the single currency will bring about an overnight revolution, affecting every citizen in countries that participate. Yet this particular brief is one few seem willing, or able, to take up.

Consumer bodies believe it is not too late to start winning people over to the euro, and want an EU-wide strategy for mass promotion to start immediately. They say that if the task is not begun soon the single currency will be launched against the will of the people and in the face of mass ignorance. The result would be chaos.

"In six months it will be too late. We won't have time to prepare the people," says Catherine Piana of Eurocommerce, a retailers' group. "The educational task is enormous, and it has not even started. Governments are only interested in fulfilling the convergence criteria, but we have to change the whole mentality of Europe.

"We have to find a way of making the whole project seem fun. We should have a giant countdown over the next five years. People could understand that. We should start getting stories in the papers which make people want to read - not just articles about convergence for the experts. We should have quizzes and prizes and schemes to start helping the elderly."

However much "fun" is injected into the campaign, though, the question remains: what will be the message? People must be told how to use the euro and what it will mean for their savings. But should they be told it is good for them - and if so, how? While the commission insists that it will be "good for jobs", for example, the German Bundesbank believes the opposite, and says so.

In Britain, the country most cautious about joining, there is probably more debate on the euro than anywhere else, however negative. But other EU governments seem nervous about stimulating debate, perhaps because they fear a backlash from their own highly sceptical populations. And all the time "no" campaigners are making their voices heard ever louder.

Promotion of the euro has got under way in France, where support for the single currency is most widespread and entry to EMU deemed certain. Pilot projects have been introduced to get people used to handling the new currency in supermarkets and banks, and Jean Arthuis, the Finance Minister, is leading a promotional campaign in his own constituency in two weeks' time.

But elsewhere, people have not yet had to face the fact that they will lose their currencies.