Kings and presidents hail switch as 'historic turning point' for EU

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The Independent Online

The advent of euro notes and coins was hailed as an historic turning point yesterday as the new currency received enthusiastic endorsement from three European prime ministers, two monarchs and the EU's most senior official.

As the countdown began for the arrival of notes and coins, Europe's leaders went into rheotrical overdrive.

Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, described the mass changeover of currency at midnight tonight as an "historic moment in the construction of Europe". At a ceremony in the royal palace in Brussels, Mr Prodi was joined by the Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar, who said that Europeans could be proud of the new currency, and by Belgium's Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who said the change was a "turning point in European history".

Mr Aznar, who takes over the presidency of the European Council on 1 January, added that : "The euro is the symbol of the strength of our union. It plants the seed of leadership around the world to which we aspire on behalf of the EU. The moment has arrived, more than ever, to be ambitious".

Separately, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, promised the euro would bring more prosperity, but added: "Many will also be a bit wistful. The German mark meant a lot to us. We link the mark with memories of good times in Germany. But you can be sure: even better times are ahead." He stressed the importance of the EU in bringing peace, adding: "At most, there could be disagreements among bureaucrats but no longer among the citizens in our European Union. This dream is at hand with the common currency."

Yesterday's launch ceremony in Brussels, performed in front of the kings of Spain and Belgium – the latter is handing over the EU presidency – included acrobats who formed a euro symbol with their bodies, a children's dance group, video clips from around the EU and choirs singing national hymns and the "European anthem", Beethoven's "Ode to Joy".

Mr Verhofstadt, said the eurozone will be the third largest monetary zone in the world. Just as the creation of currencies like the franc and peseta reinforced national economies and markets, he said, so the euro would perform the same function at European level.

The gathering, in the chandeliered throne room of the royal palace in Brussels, included speeches from politicians and youngsters in a mixture of French, Dutch and Spanish. With the United Kingdom still on the sidelines English was, unsurprisingly, almost entirely absent from the ceremony.

The three acrobats surprised the royals by presenting them each with little plastic packs of euro coins.

In a slightly less polished manoeuvre, Mr Aznar seemed to be caught off guard when presented with the European flag by a youngster wearing a euro baseball cap back to front.

Yesterday's event was the start of the countdown to tonight's introduction of notes and coins which will be used by some 300 million people stretching from northern Finland to southern Greece.

With banks set to distribute some 50 billion euro coins and more than 14 billion banknotes through 12 EU countries, teething problems are inevitable but Mr Verhofstadt said that Europeans were already accepting the new money "happily" and said that the coinage will bring Europe into people's everyday lives.

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