Currencies 'will be out of circulation within 10 days'

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The Independent Online

Twelve old European currencies will be almost out of circulation within 10 days, the European Commission said yesterday, when it declared the world's biggest-ever cash changeover to be relatively problem-free.

As shops and offices reopened and the new currency survived its first real test, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, Pedro Solbes, professed himself "extremely satisfied" with progress.

According to unofficial estimates some countries saw about a quarter of two-way transactions being completed in euros on January 1. Mr Solbes said that he expects this figure "to reach 90 per cent by the end of next week".

On New Year's Day, withdrawals from cash machines ran at twice the normal level as consumers scrambled to get their hands on the new currency – many leaving parties to make withdrawals.

In some countries, including Belgium, all cash dispensers have now been converted to euros and across the eurozone 160,000 – roughly four-fifths of the machines – are distributing the new currency.

As the new currency rose more than 2 per cent against the pound the commissioner said that the reception of Europe's population had defied the expectations of the critics. He argued: "The reaction of eurozone citizens should be considered to be positive. A very warm welcome has been given to the introduction of the euro despite the cold weather outside. Some had some doubt about the acceptance [of the euro] of European opinion. I think this preoccupation has to be discounted. In this sense I think this is positive for the future."

In Brussels the Belgian National Bank said it has distributed €5bn (£3bn) of banknotes and €500m of coins, with €61m being withdrawn from cash machines. Nabil Jijakli, a spokesman, said: "We are really very happy. Tired but happy. This is an historic moment."

Despite some glitches in the banking sector, most big business appears to be well prepared although another test will come on Saturday, which is Europe's biggest day for retailers, when consumers spend as much they do from Sunday to Friday.

Financial authorities across the eurozone are now most concerned about the small and medium-sized enterprises which are known to have lagged in their preparations. These have struggled most, both with the problem of conversion and with the official injunctions to give change in euros even if a payment is made in national currencies.

Mr Solbes appealed to "those in the retail trade who have not obtained euros" to "move forward with the process in a calm and progressive way".

Giulio Tremonti, the Italian Economy Minister, told shoppers to be attentive to the conversions to prevent "clever" salespeople rounding up prices unfairly. But the difficulty of staying vigilant was illustrated when reporters asked Guilherme Oliveira Martins, the Portuguese Finance Minister, to give the escudo equivalent of €100. "That's ... er ... er ... well, it's going to take some time to get used to it all," he replied.