LONDON -- Cees Post sits at his desk in Luxembourg and examines the coin on his desk. It is gold; it has the impression of Charlemagne on one side and the arms of the Belgian monarchy on the other. It has a value of 50 ECUs.
It is made of chocolate.
"This is a serious currency," he says -- and he should know. He is a spokesman for the European Investment Bank, the main financing organ of the European Community.
"There are traveler's checks in ECUs, credit cards, bank accounts," Mr. Post says. You can take out a loan in ECUs, buy a bond denominated in ECUs. You can even open a savings account.
The only thing you cannot do is hold one in your hand. The chocolate coin, along with others of various metals, is a commemorative one, kind of an expression of hope. What is the ECU? It is an abstraction but not a fiction. It is not physical, but still it is real. It is relatively new, having been created in 1979, but also very, very old.
Officially, it is the European Currency Unit, and this month it was supposed to take another step closer to concrete reality when the 24,129 employees of the European Community were to start receiving their salaries denominated in ECUs.
But that didn't happen. Why? Robert Elphick, a Eurocrat employedin London, wasn't sure. He was kind of vague about the whole thing: "Somebody had been thinking of ECUs and salaries in Brussels [EC headquarters], but then nothing happened." He paused. "Maybe the unions squashed it."
True believers in eventual European unification hope the ECU will one day become the currency of Europe, banishing pounds, francs, pesetas, guilders, even the mighty deutsche mark from the marketplace.
Before her political diminution, Margaret Thatcher was the fiercest opponent to the dawning of the age of ECU. For her, and the Euro-rejectionists grouped around her, the pound was sacred and venerable.
The ECU? What was it? Nothing but an invention of two former European leaders, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who conceived it as a unit of account to use to determine the average of all the currencies grouped in the European Monetary System.
But they did not invent the ECU. They chose the word because of its antecedents as a currency of old: a 14th century French coin, used as late as the 18th century.
With Mrs. Thatcher sidelined by her announcement that she will abandon her seat in the House of Commons, the ECU is expected to have better prospects in this country. In the recent Luxembourg summit, Prime Minister John Major moved Britain closer to outright acceptance of European monetary union, and therefore ultimate acceptance of the ECU. He defended the single currency, with caveats, because it "reduces risks and costs for exchange rate transaction" and is convenient for travelers.
So what will the ECU look like? How much will it be worth? And what will it mean to those who trade in it?
Should the ECU ever be minted or printed, tourists should greet it happily because it will put an end to bothersome exchange transactions at every border crossing.
The ECU's value as an abstract medium stands, at this writing, at $1.12. That's how much it would cost if you could go to a bank and buy some.
The appearance of the ECU, its size, shape, whether it will be a bill or a coin -- all that's up in the air. Barry D. Wood, economics editor of the Voice of America, writing in Europe magazine last year, quoted the head of the Association of Monetary Union, Bertrand De Maigret, as saying that it will likely be selected from designs submitted by European schoolchildren.
If a bill, it is likely to have one face reflecting the national currency -- the pound, franc, etc. -- and the other some representation of Europe as a whole, possibly with a picture of Jean Monnet, the community's founding father, or some other Euro-notable, such as Charlemagne.