Welcome, Baby Euro

New currency: Invisible now, will soon rival dollar on world markets while unifying continent.

January 07, 1999

THE ALMIGHTY dollar faces a rival in financial transactions. The euro exists, though you cannot see it. The currencies of Austria, Belgium Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain still circulate, but were glued together on New Year's Day.

Each took a fixed rate of exchange to a unit of account called the euro. Control over their supply and interest rates passed from each nation's central bank to the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. They are really one currency; they just look different.

Large transactions are denominated in euros. Prices are listed for comparison in euros and in local currencies. Euro notes and coins will circulate beginning Jan. 1, 2002. Six months later, national currencies will disappear.

The 11 governments are losing partial sovereignty over fiscal policies, budget and social spending. Conceived by governments of the right, wedded to fighting inflation, the European Central bank begins life servicing governments of the left, craving job creation.

The euro will gradually join the dollar as the reserve currency of nations and traders that are neither American nor European. That is not a bad thing, as it eases the burden of maintaining world stability from the U.S. economy.

The euro will blur borders within Euroland. Finland is in, its Nordic partners out. The Irish Republic is in, Northern Ireland out.

More countries want to join. Britain missed the bus, in the view of its business leaders and Labor government, and must catch the next bus. Not at all, says the opposition Conservative Party that views Europe as foreign. The issue looms as a key to the next election.

The unification of Europe is palpable on the streets of its capital cities, swarming with tourists from each other, thanks to low air fares. The new tourism is casual, youthful and brief, and soon won't require money-changing.

Uniformity, business mergers and nationality-mixing result. U.S. firms will find a larger and simpler market for their products and services, with fewer but stronger competitors.

The real test of the euro will be in reconciling the interests of member countries, one of which seeks growth while another fears inflation. Euroland will either break apart from such tensions, or grow larger and more powerful. Eleven countries is just a start.

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