Euro facing post-holiday test
FRANKFURT, Germany (CNN) -- Nearly 300 million Europeans have started 2002 with a new currency.
The euro marks a "symbolic bridge" towards economic unity in the most ambitious currency swap in history, according to the president of the European Central Bank.
Fifty billion coins and 14.5 billion bank notes -- totaling $568 billion -- became legal tender amid a fanfare of celebrations across Europe at midnight on New Year's Eve.
From the Arctic Circle to the fringes of Africa, from the Aegean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the euro gives some 300 million people in 12 European countries a united currency.
But the real test will come on Wednesday, when the New Year holiday ends and businesses reopen, forcing people to come to terms with the disappearance of their familiar old currencies.
French commercial banks and the national post office voiced confidence on Tuesday that strikes called for January 2 over pay and security grievances would not disrupt the first business day of the euro.
On Tuesday, as the currency began to be circulated, concerns about crime proved largely unfounded with police reporting few problems except for a theft from a bank of 90,000 euros ($79,720) near the Spanish city of Zamora.
Some minor problems were reported, with many cash machines still offering only old national currencies.
The euro is now legal tender in Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
Former currencies, such as the drachma, peseta, franc and lire, will continue to be legal tender in the eurozone countries until the end of February, when the euro becomes the sole currency.
Three European Union countries -- the UK, Sweden and Denmark -- have yet to sign on to the euro and are retaining their own currencies.
But European Commission President Romano Prodi predicted on Tuesday that Britain would join the single currency but said he was making "no forecast" on when that might be.
Prodi told reporters a new era had dawned. "The euro is your money, it is our money. It's our future. It is a piece of Europe in our hands," Prodi said.
Meanwhile, officials were keeping their fingers crossed that the switch for banks, shops and cash machines would go smoothly.
The euro was introduced in 1999 when national currencies were pegged to it at fixed rates and ceased to be traded independently on currency markets. Since then, marks, francs, guilders and lire have essentially been local versions of the euro.
Bank balances, stock prices and companies earnings reports, among many other things, were already spelled out in euros. But the psychologically important moment for most people was being able to hold a euro in their hand.
Most of the eurozone's 170,000 cash machines should now dispense only euros. Major shops will be giving change only in euros, under agreements between governments and major retail groups.
If everything goes according to plan, these measures will remove most of the old cash from the economy within two weeks, although it can still be used for up to two months depending on the country.
National central banks will exchange the old money for years but the ECB predicts most transactions should be all in euros by January 15.
The first official euro purchase was one kilo of lychees on the French island of Reunion -- whose location in the Indian Ocean made it the first European territory to usher in the New Year and handle the euro. On the European continent itself, time zones dictated it was Greece and Finland that led the way.
A huge euro pyramid lit up the night sky in Syntagma Square in Athens as the Greeks said goodbye to the drachma, Europe's oldest currency.
Far to the north in Helsinki, the Bank of Finland opened its doors at midnight for an hour to let its citizens swap their markka for the newfangled money.
In Berlin, fireworks greeted the new year and new currency. And in Paris, the city's oldest bridge, the Pont Neuf, was swathed in the colours of the EU -- with the landmark's 12 arches symbolising the number of eurozone nations that were about to share the same currency.
Response to the new money among Europeans was mixed.
Some people, though, were openly mourning the end of the familiar national currencies, which will be phased out by the end of February in most eurozone nations.
In the northern German town of Gifhorn, 100 people in black suits and top hats held a symbolic funeral procession and buried an oversized Deutschemark to the accompaniment of sombre music.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulated European leaders Monday on their adoption of a single currency as an example to the world that "uniting in a common cause can bring benefits to all."
Europeans start spending euros
January 1, 2002
Europe's leaders hail new currency
January 1, 2002
Black money: Spain's 'euro effect'
December 31, 2001
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