Eday was an historic moment. The launch of euro notes and coins to 300 million of the EU’s citizens in the twelve euro area countries was a powerful testament to the EU as a unique example of co-operation between proud and independent nation states.
It was also an immense feat of organization. The euro notes already printed would stretch five times to the moon if laid end to end. The coins weigh as much as 24 Eiffel towers. And distributing them around the EU required the equivalent of half a million armoured car trips. And the changeover has been overwhelmingly successful. Within days, people across Europe – including places outside the euro area like Kosovo – found using the euro as easy as using francs and marks. Bank accounts, shop tills, vending machines and social security systems have been converted with minimal disruption. Eurosceptic British journalists were reduced to pounding the streets in vain in search of confused-looking pensioners.
However, the successful changeover has not changed our policy on joining the euro. Gordon Brown’s key statement in October 1997 was absolutely clear about the potential benefits of a successful single currency. The euro could help with trade, transparency of costs and currency stability. Joining the euro could help create the conditions for higher and more productive investment in Britain and far greater trade and business in Europe – which means more and better jobs for British citizens.
But we must be certain that joining the euro will be in Britain’s national economic interests, which is why we have set ourselves the five economic tests. We will not recommend joining the euro unless the Treasury’s assessment presents a clear case for it. There is no one in this government who wants to join the euro except on the basis of a thorough and comprehensive assessment. There are no euro zealots amongst us. We are interested in real practical benefits for British citizens, British business and the British economy – and the five tests are the basis on which we will make this judgement.
But although the changeover does not affect our policy, it is still a vital moment for Britain. It has already affected the European debate here; it is affecting how our firms do business; and it is affecting us in our everyday lives, whether as travellers, or as customers in shops where dual prices are shown and euros accepted.
The euro is powerful proof that Eurosceptics who scoff at the EU’s ability to make important changes are very often wrong. They said the euro could never happen. It has. They said the changeover would never work. It did. They said we would never join. We will, but only if we think it would be in our economic interests.
The successful changeover also shows that the EU can bring real benefits for real people in their everyday lives. Every time people travel within the euro area, they gain from not having to change money. Every time they shop on the internet, they can compare prices throughout the euro zone, and buy without foreign exchange costs. And every time they buy from a local shop, that shop can pass savings from eliminating foreign exchange costs and more competition among suppliers.
The Eurosceptics, also told us the changeover would bring chaos; enormous queues; con men and rip-offs; crashing bank accounts and computers; and soaring prices. Yet, apart from odd glitches that are inevitable when you affect the lives of 300 million people overnight, it has worked. Almost every credible commentator, including respected anti-euro economists like Professor Tim Congdon, and much of the Eurosceptic media, agree that the changeover was a clear success. Opinion polls show people no longer trust the media about Europe. They want real information, real facts and a real debate, not a propaganda battle of spin, myth and prejudice.
Britain and the euro area are each other’s largest trading partners. Half our exports, produced by firms employing three million workers, go to the euro area. Even firms who do not export directly to the euro area are linked to the euro through suppliers, competitors and customers who are affected by the euro. We estimate that up to 800,000 British firms will be affected, directly or indirectly, including, of course, retailers accepting the euro, from Dixons to Sainsburys. The euro will affect our jobs, investment and growth.
And the euro will affect us as normal citizens. British citizens will make 40 million visits to the euro area this year, and many of us will have had euros in our wallets, bought drinks and meals with them, got used to holding and using them. We will see that the euro is real, that it makes life easier for us and for our European cousins, and that it is part of everyday life. And people will see how ludicrous are the scare stories the Eurosceptics throw at us. Stories of giving up national identities, different tax and social security systems and independent foreign policies – all things the government has made absolutely clear it is determined to defend under all circumstances. The euro will not make the French less French or the Italians less Italian. The Sun suggested joining the euro would force us to give up our seat at the UN! I seriously doubt anyone coming back from France thinks the French would do so. Why on earth would we?
So, I’m delighted the changeover has gone so well. Partly because it’s good seeing Eurosceptics proved wrong yet again, partly because it will strengthen the debate in Britain about Europe and the euro. But most of all because a successful euro is good for Europe and good for Britain.
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