Euros as Monopoly money?

June 15, 2000|By Al Webb

LONDON -- A couple of years from now, you could find yourself forking out a fistful of euros to ride the Space Mountain rocket at Disneyland Paris, or for a ticket to "Aida" at Milan's La Scala opera house, or for a schnapps on Berlin's Kurfurstendamm. Then again, you could find them more useful for buying Baltic Avenue on your Monopoly board.

The euro is the European Union's single currency, intended to do away with all those marks and francs and lire and the like. Its enthusiasts foresee a day when, as the EU sweeps eastward, its new money wipes out all those levs and leus and zlotys and other foo-foo currencies that are perhaps better suited as wallpaper for the bathroom.

At least that's the vision of a vast "euroland" where the same currency -- albeit in different amounts -- will buy Ronald McDonald's eats or Kentucky Fried Chicken in Barcelona or Berlin or Bratislava. Reality hints at something different, a sort of European rerun of "The Crash of '29," with theme music from "Titanic."

Meanwhile, the euro is itself sort of an almost-but-not-quite. You can't get euros at a bank, or stick one in a slot machine, or flip one to see who pays for the next round.

Since Jan. 1, 1999, the currency has existed only electronically, as a non-cash means of making payments, at a value determined when EU finance ministers locked exchange rates between it and 11 European currencies.

The euro doesn't become money in the pocket until Jan. 1, 2002, but then a tidal wave of European gray, red, blue, orange, green, yellow and purple banknotes and reddish, yellowish, grayish coins is to flood Europe -- and, in the process, sweep marks and francs and schillings into the sewers of history forever.

Or will it?

Actually, all is far from well in euroland, and it has been thus since the day the 11 currencies were tied together to create the euro. In fact, there were 15 nations in the EU at the time, but three -- Britain, Denmark and Sweden -- decided they wanted no part of it, at least for the time being. A fourth, Greece, failed to qualify on grounds of an economy that owed more to Kafka than to Keynes.

It is perhaps important to remember that its currency is one of the highest indicators a nation has of its identity.

In Britain, the pound sterling is a mighty symbol, steeped as it is in nearly a millennium of history. That is why, according to polls, more than 60 percent of its citizens are opposed to the euro (and the fact that European bankers have banned the queen's head from any euro banknotes didn't help).

So with 11 of the 15 crew members on board, the euro set sail on the financial waters on Jan. 1, 1999, and promptly sprung all sorts of leaks. It has sank steadily against major non-"euroland" currencies, including a fall of more than 20 percent against the U.S. dollar.

At this rate of decline, I suggest that on or about Aug. 22, 2001, the euro could reach parity with the Confederate dollar, at which point it should make a dandy substitute for all my worn-out Monopoly money.

Considering its origin in a continent that gave us the creative genius of Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven and Rembrandt, the concept of the euro is almost breathtaking in its banality. But then, Europe's nations are also historically noted for their inability to agree on much of anything, except to murder, rape and pillage one another at regular intervals.

From the day the single currency was first mooted, they feuded even over just what to call it. Euro-mark was one idea, as were taler, dollar, florin and frank -- and for a time the front-runner was the German word "franken," until British Member of Parliament Teresa Gorman stretched it to "Frankenstein --because it is a monstrous proposition."

Meanwhile, European politicians are frantically trying to sell the single currency to an increasingly skeptical electorate. The French government, for instance, decided rather bizarrely to issue free calculators to the tramps and other down-and-outs of Paris to help them figure out their incomes and expenditures in both francs and euros.

"I believe it is like the Titanic," said Jean-Pierre Chevenement, France's interior minister a couple of years back. "The sea is calm, the dining salon is superb, everything is very comfortable and full of luxury ... But the Titanic is charging at full steam toward the ice pack. By the time we see the iceberg, perhaps it will be too late."

"One can only pray and sing," Mr. Chevenement said. Strains of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" come to mind -- followed by "Nearer My God to Thee."

Al Webb is an independent American journalist living in London.

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