x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Eurotopia and the short-lived euphoria

Looking back at the launch of the euro

LONDON // Just over 10 years ago, the hotelier from the Belgian city of Liège simply did not get it. He seemed, though, to be the only one who didn't.

It was December 31, 2001, and Europe was a continent full of as many different monetary currencies as there were countries. Well, almost.

The next day, January 1, 2002, those francs and guilders and deutschmarks were destined to disappear forever and a dozen countries were to share a brand new note. The euro.

My task was to drive through five countries (France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Germany) on the last day of the old, then retrace my steps on the first day of the new, drinking a coffee in each nation on both legs of the trip.

Aside from the odd, grumpy Frenchman averse to changing anything, there seemed a genuine air of anticipation, if not quite excitement, over the prospect of a new currency uniting much of mainland Europe.

Eurotopia, I called it, and during a New Year's Eve celebration in northern France, someone even proposed a toast to the new currency and a roar of lusty assent went up.

Except the hotelier in Liège did not get it. "I am no economist," he told me over a post-dinner drink, "but I do not understand how, suddenly, we are all equals. It is like RFC Liège [a football team from Belgium's third division] playing in the same league as your Manchester United. I just do not understand how it will work."

The words were, with the benefit of hindsight, prophetic indeed, even if the hotelier's concerns centred on the chances of his own Belgium being able to hold its own in the same league as mighty Germany. The frailties of some southern Europe economies - such as Greece - were far from his mind at the time.

My reaction to his remarks had been to shrug my shoulders and smile indulgently. I did not even mention his reservations in the piece I wrote for The Daily Telegraph on the ferry home the following evening.

After all, I figured that all those politicians, civil servants, bankers and economists must have thought through the Manchester United v RFC Liège conundrum. I mean, they must have done, mustn't they?

So, instead, I shed crocodile tears for the operators of the bureaux de change at national borders, who suddenly had nothing to change for their 3 per cent commissions.

And I mused on the problems of paying for the coffee on the return trip. Though everything was meant to be in euros by then, the lady at the stall at the main railway station in Luxembourg rejected payment in marks and French francs but said she was happy to accept Belgian francs.

I blamed the banks, bemoaning the fact that it did not seem to have occurred to anyone in the 12 (now 17) countries adopting the euro that it might have been a good idea to have a few banks open to dispense the new notes on the first day they did.

By the end of the trip, I was left with what I described as "a wad of colourful notes, bearing the pictures of heroic Frenchmen, determined Germans, artistic Dutchmen and Belgians nobody could quite remember".

Except there is one Belgian I recall now as Greece implodes, Spain teeters on the brink and a new French president reckons the whole crisis is being tackled in the wrong way.

That Belgian is the one who, a decade ago, did not quite seem to get it. Or, as it has turned out, seems to be one of the very few who really did seem to get it.