European Affairs

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After the Euro, What's Next?

 I confess that I was surprised to see a human tide of 300,000 people invading the Champs Elysées to celebrate the euro's birth in the early hours of January 1, 2002. The sky was dark and the ground was black with people. But the array of lights and decorations lit up the famous street as if it were the middle of the day. The crowd, the emotion, and the cold made it hard to breathe.

I wondered whether I was the victim of some official propaganda machine. But this was spontaneous. I remembered the first conference The European Institute organized in Washington to warn its members that the single European currency was on the way. That was back in 1991. Our most trusted friends thought that we were presenting an interesting idea, but that we were out of touch with reality.

And now I found myself disbelieving my own eyes. Many of us had expected a monetary mess until at least April. Not only were the new euro bills and coins introduced without trouble, but even the French, who are well-known for complaining about almost everything, took it all in their stride.

"The franc is the past. The euro is the future" was the theme. Many women took advantage of the historic changeover to get rid of their old currency, not at the local bank but in the stores during the New Year sales. Everybody had a great time joking about not understanding the prices, which appeared four times on marked down goods: the original prices and the reduced ones were both shown in francs and euro.

Some shoppers simply opened their wallets and told cashiers to take whatever they wanted, since they could not recognize the new coins. One lady finally declared, magnanimously: "I could not recognize the old ones either. It is my sight that is weakening." Any excuse was good enough to clear the new currency.

Now, as politicians rejoice that the euro brings the idea of Europe closer to every one of us Europeans, and perhaps makes it more appealing, there is a symbol of peace in our wallets. As I traveled to Brussels and Frankfurt, I found everybody enthusiastically welcoming the new currency. There was little grumbling about the future, however difficult it might be.

Even in Switzerland, outside the euro zone, you can now pay in euro, although other national currencies were not accepted before. Britain, Denmark and Sweden, who shunned the euro, now seem like old friends who are running late for the party.

One conclusion can be drawn from all this. Government officials, journalists, analysts and all the professionals involved in the politics of European integration have grossly underestimated the genuine public desire for European unity. "It is the visionaries who are the realists," Helmut Kohl said on receiving the Medal of Freedom in Washington in April 1999. And as James Joyce observed: "History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake." But some are trying harder than others - the only real failure would be to give up.

As European Affairs continues to provide a factual, and occasionally critical, progress report on European integration and relations between the new Europe and the United States, we may for once indulge in recognizing that the trees of our daily political struggles often hide the forest of our extraordinary joint successes.

Coming out of a meeting in Washington with Robert Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, Pascal Lamy, the European Trade Commissioner, reminded us in January that "telephone diplomacy" was replacing "megaphone diplomacy" in resolving politically and technically complex trade disputes. Alluding to Henry Kissinger's old comment that he did not have Europe's telephone number when he was Secretary of State, Lamy sarcastically noted: "We have each other's telephone number."

"If you want to find out what is in you, expose yourself to unaccustomed challenges," the great Stanford Professor John Gardner used to say. The European Union does not lack challenges. They are contained in code words for ambitious goals such as: "enlargement," "defense identity" and "European constitution."

If it is true that the camel is a horse designed by a committee, there is a chance that the European constitution will look like a camel in 2004. But that does not mean that it will not be able to find its way. Hopefully, other strange political animals will accompany it, confirming the wisdom of Aldous Huxley, who wrote that: "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number I in the Winter of 2002.