On Euro's birth, bright hopes for a united Europe A single currency will join 11 nations divided by culture, war

December 31, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LILLE, France -- Chantal Dabin's heart lies in Europe. The 16-year-old French schoolgirl studies Spanish and English, travels widely and is certain that tomorrow's birth of the euro currency heralds a new age for her continent and generation.

"For the future, it is better for us to have an idea for a Europe together, rather than every country separate," she says. "Europe is about a new image. It is about money, and unification."

Untouched by the continental wars, economic calamities and diplomatic deals that shaped 20th-century Europe, Dabin is optimistic about the start of the euro, the single currency that will bind 11 countries and eventually sweep away French francs, German marks and Spanish pesetas. For her, Europe isn't a mass of once-feuding countries. It's a marketplace of fashion, music and food.

"Europe can be useful," she says. "And it can be a force for good."

Dabin's yearning for a continent where cash unites rather than divides is poised to become reality in a place that's been dubbed Euroland, a patchwork quilt of nearly 300 million people in a $6 trillion market that stretches from the Irish Sea to the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle.

The charter members of the euro zone are Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Britain, bowed by "euroskeptics," has not joined.

Today, the finance ministers of these member countries will fix their exchange rates to the euro. They will surrender a key piece of their sovereignty -- control of monetary policy -- to the new European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany. While the euro will be officially hatched tomorrow, the New Year's Day holiday, the key date is Monday as banks across Europe complete feverish preparations and begin trading the new currency.

During a three-year transition, the euro will be used in financial markets and seep into business accounting, with multinational corporations taking the plunge before small firms. Consumers will be offered the option of euro checking accounts, credit cards and mortgages.

For American tourists entering the euro zone during the transition, it's business as usual -- with a twist. Americans will trade dollars for euros, but will receive local currencies such as the Italian lire and the Dutch guilder. Euro-denominated travelers' checks are available. Credit cards and debit cards can be used to pay the euro price at participating businesses.

New euro coins and bills won't circulate until 2002, which gives Europeans plenty of time to adapt to the euro while holding on to their national cash. By July 1, 2002, the national currencies will be out of circulation.

In the meantime, Europeans can ponder their future, and what shape the continent will take.

Lille offers a peek at the new Europe. An old textile center in the north of France, near the Belgian border, the city weathered Flemish, Austrian and Spanish rule and was the birthplace of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, architect of post-World War II France.

High-speed trains link Lille to London, Paris and Brussels. The steel-gray Euralille mall is a magnet for bargain-hunting Belgians, Germans and Dutch. And while Lille is resolutely French, with its storied bakeries, restaurants and squares, it has a European tinge. At the Bar de L'Echo, drinkers can sip Irish-brewed Guinness beer in an English-style pub while watching ski jumping on the continent-wide cable channel, Eurosport.

Lille is increasingly euro-ready. At the Carrefour hypermarket, where shoppers can purchase everything from fresh seafood to television sets, receipts already reflect both francs and euros, even though the euro is not officially in use. At a nearby Leclerc supermarket, they go one better, pricing all goods in both currencies.

"We are well prepared for the euro," says Capon Sebastian, a 27-year-old financial consultant at the Caisse d'Epargne bank.

"People want to know if they are going to be forced to create a euro bank account," he says. "The answer is, you keep your own money, and it's the same value, with two systems of counting, the euro and the franc."

A change for the better?

Will the euro be good for Europe?

"Good question," Sebastian says. "We're always talking about competing with the U.S. dollar. Why not a system that is a little bit better than the U.S. dollar. The economy will change for the better."

Sebastian says that most customers are accepting the euro. Polls across the continent show the young to be euro-friendly, while older consumers are coming around to the notion of a unified European economy.

"Europe means financial power," says 63-year-old Jean Perillieux, who manages a shop that sells souvenirs of Lille's top professional soccer team. "We have confidence that we're going to build a European culture."

But just what is European culture? In some ways, that is one of the more important issues created by the euro.

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