Europe's leaders say new currency will cement unity

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As Europe's biggest peace-time logistical operation reached its climax last night, European leaders declared the introduction of euro notes and coins would bring greater integration and reinforce the euro's status as the world's second currency.

By yesterday, businesses had been supplied with 6 billion notes and 37.5 billion coins worth 144bn euros (£88bn) while the public had coins worth 1.6bn euros. In total, some 14.5 billion newly printed euro notes will be introduced, along with 56 billion coins.

The only sign of political turbulence yesterday surrounded the position of Wim Duisenberg, the Dutch president of the European Central Bank (ECB), who declared that he planned to stay in office at least another year, in spite of French claims that he had promised, when appointed in 1998, to make way for the Bank of France governor, Jean-Claude Trichet, in mid-2002.

Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, entered the controversy, saying: "Mr Duisenberg did say he would be leaving earlier [than the expiry of his mandate] but there was no specific date. There is still a problem but I am sure we can resolve it."

Tensions over the ECB position could not dampen expectations that the launch will give a huge boost to European integration. Mr Prodi said: "The euro is your money, it is our money. It's our future. It is a piece of Europe in our hands."

From the north of Finland to the islands of Greece, reindeer skins will be bought and sold in the same currency unit as olive oil. Nor is the eurozone the limit for the euro, whose reach will be global.

That such a huge logistical operation is happening in 2001 owes more to a past generation of European leaders than the present. Driven forward by the former European Commission president Jacques Delors, the former French president Francois Mitterrand and the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the euro is a rare example of the triumph of political mind over matter.

Its architects know there are dangers in linking currencies and in a "one-size-fits-all" interest rate policy and that stresses will inevitably arise.

Since exchange rates were linked in January 1999, the value of the currency has plunged from $1.18 to less than 90 cents. But there have been big advantages already and the eurozone survived the economic fallout of 11 September in reasonable shape and with none of the devaluations of old.

Now notes and coins are here, early evidence suggests this venture for Europe presents unparalleled opportunities. Even the German population, which was never consulted by referendum on the change, has been reconciled. When mini-kits of euro coins were made available to the public early in December they were snapped up with extraordinary speed. More than 150 million of them ­ with 4.2 billion coins ­ have been bought. So vast was the demand that in Germany, Portugal, Finland and Luxembourg banks were authorised to make up their own kits from bulk stocks.

Political leaders expect this enthusiasm to translate into a new, more positive mood towards the EU. Yesterday, euro launch celebrations began in Brussels under the slogan "the European Union in your hand" and Mr Prodi believes that the use of notes and coins will foster "a common identity".

The French President, Jacques Chirac, said in his televised New Year's Eve message: "The euro is a victory for Europe. After a century of being torn apart, of wars and tribulations, our continent is finally affirming its identity and power in peace, unity and stability."

Other leaders underscored that message as they welcomed the new currency. The Greek Prime Minister, whose country, with Finland, was the first to convert to the euro, one hour ahead of the other states, declared: "This is a milestone in Greek history. Now we are part of united Europe."

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, hailed the "political act of unity and integration" brought about by the euro.

But in Britain, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said it was a "silly notion" that the British government should take a view on euro entry before determining whether its five economic tests had been met.

All this comes at a crucial juncture for Europe. While the power of the European Commission in Brussels has waned, the 15 member states are pushing ahead in important new areas, such as the decision to create an EU rapid reaction force of 60,000 men by 2003.

In the wake of 11 September, European governments have embarked on a revolutionary change in judicial co-operation. Extradition proceedings are to be replaced by an EU-wide arrest warrant. Some joke that Osama bin Laden has done more for European unity than anyone since Mr Delors.

In little more than two years' time there may be a proto-European constitution after a new effort to rewrite the EU's treaty in 2004. Since 1999, the EU has been beset by political crises including the mass resignation of the European Commission and referendum rebuffs in Denmark (over euro membership) and Ireland (over the Nice Treaty). With the euro, the EU has something positive to show and, with it, comes a chance to change the political climate.