It’s very simple: the euro is a crucial part of the Europe we like because it promotes the idea and reality of a European identity. What better way to show how a European society can be constructed than by creating a single currency that doesn’t recognise national borders and is of equal value no matter where you go in the euro-zone? But we will never achieve the Europe we want if we don’t have a single currency that the European population can identify with wherever they live in the continent.
“Europe will be done by the currency or will not be done” (Rueff)
The creation of a single currency is an ambitious project and the criteria the elite and public opinion use to judge its success differs significantly. The former often refer to the original European ideal of ensuring that war would never again divide the continent. The euro’s very existence owes as much to the vision of those scarred with the experience of World War II as it does to the economic calculation that a single European currency was possible.
Nevertheless, although such grand visions are necessary for the formation of the idea of ‘One Europe’, the euro’s success in helping to create a European society also depends on the opinions of the hundreds of millions of people who use it every day as a practical, daily part of their lives. When you look at the public opinion figures, it seems that the first battle has been won: there is general acceptance of the euro in legal terms and Eurobarometer surveys report that although the majority of euro-citizens believe that their identity has not changed since January 2002, significantly greater numbers feel a little more European than they did before (Flash Eurobarometer, November 2002).
But we need to go further. Although they are a necessary part of any inquiry into how society thinks, public opinion figures are not sufficient on their own. Conversations, formal or informal, can help to provide a better understanding of why people have certain beliefs, identities, and so on.
Bonding over a good moan
Perhaps surprisingly, there appears to be considerable disquiet about the euro and especially about the price rises that followed its introduction. German and Spanish respondents all referred to the euro as the ‘teuro’ and the ‘redondo’ (both terms are a play on words meaning ‘expensive’ and ‘to round up’ respectively); Caroline, a 37 year old teacher living in Amsterdam, complained of the considerable increase in food prices; and Michael, a 24 year old student living in Vienna, noted that while the prices of some products have fallen (such as expensive electronic equipment), the beneficiaries of such falls have mostly been the wealthy. The largest consumer association in France reported in August 2002 that the average weekly shopping basket cost 10% more than before January 2002, while the Greek government released figures showing that the price of fruit and vegetables increased significantly in the aftermath of the change to the euro. It is not surprising that a large majority of the population in every euro-country believes that the euro’s introduction has been to the detriment of consumers (Flash Eurobarometer, November 2002).
However, the euro can play a positive role in the creation of a European identity. People living in countries outside the euro-zone are unable to participate in conversations complaining about the price rises because they’re not part of the ‘group’. One of the first laws of forming an identity is constructing the self (the ‘insider’) and the other (the ‘outsider’). Take Mauro, a 28 year old from Naples, who works for a multinational company. He says that he feels ‘less restricted in what I can talk about when talking to those who share my currency. This makes me feel more comfortable”. Through collectively venting their anger at the inflation accompanying the euro’s introduction, these European citizens are able to identify with each other more than the ‘outsiders’. In money terms, ‘euro-citizens’ speak the same language.
Note to the ECB: it’s the (European) economy, stupid
But, a note of caution: responses to the Flash Eurobarometer November 2002 survey suggested that the difference between those happy and unhappy with the euro shrank considerably during 2002. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this development but the poor performance of the euro economy is surely one of the most important. But, let’s not forget hat the German population’s acceptance of the new economic arrangements, symbolised by the Deutsche Mark, did not occur immediately after the currency reform of 1948. It was not until the mid-1950s, with the Wirtschaftswunder well under way, that sentiment became strongly positive. A stronger euro-economy that produces real, material improvements in people’s lives is urgently required. If this happens, maybe then we can begin the journey from legal to real identification with the euro and hence with Europe. But if such an economy does not materialise the dream of a European society will remain just that and the European project will continue to be supported more strongly by the elite than the masses. We cannot close our eyes and wish that a European society will come into being; it needs to be both created and embraced.