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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 10:13 GMT
Finland opts for 'go-slow' euro approach
Shopping centre in Helsinki
Finnish shoppers: Advised to continue their normal lives
by BBC News Online's Emma Clark

As the sun rises on the eastern outreach of Europe on 1 January, Finland will become the first country in the world to introduce euro cash.

And yet, paradoxically, the Finns are in no hurry to convert their markka.

As part of its conversion plan, the country's cash machines, or ATMs, will only be refilled with euros as they empty of Finnish markka, and not before 1 January.

"Many countries think it is a good thing to convert their ATMs very fast - in one second at midnight," says Rauno Niinimäki, chief of the country's euro project at the Ministry of Finance.

"This is a good intention, but in practice it will present some difficulties."

'Just a different philosophy'

The country's public transport system will also hold off from forcing customers to pay in euros until enough of the new currency is in circulation.

Street scene in Helsinki with tram
Public transport will not force Finns to pay in euros
Many other European countries plan to press their citizens to pay in euros for bus and train journeys from day one.

"I don't understand why," says Mr Niinimäki. "We don't want to push people, we want them to continue their normal lives."

Marion Bywater, editorial director of the Euro-impact newsletter, says that Finland's laidback approach shows "just a different philosophy" to the changeover.

Cash concerns

Finland's chief concern is running out of cash, particularly as Finns only use ATMs and not banks to get their cash.

Mr Niinimäki explains that the country does not have the resources to switch over all its ATMs at midnight on 1 January, and so risks running out of cash if it does not phase in the conversion gradually.

Finnish markka
Not much cash is used in Finland
"It may be a bit slower but it will be very safe," he adds.

The authorities feel it would be dangerous to run of cash because it might make people resentful toward the euro.

The go-slow approach on ATMs is cushioned by the fact that Finnish shoppers are more accustomed than other Europeans to using credit or debit cards instead of cash.

Many Finns merely dial a number in their mobile phones to pay for services at vendor machines.

Stick to the plastic

The Ministry of Finance is keen to encourage people to continue using plastic in order to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

Bankomat ATM in Finland
About 80% of ATMs will be switched over in week one
"The more payments are carried out by bankcard, the easier the changeover will be," says an official government guidance document.

"There will also be less chance of the errors that occur in cash handling," it adds.

The country hopes to switch over 80% of its ATMs within the first week and is phlegmatic about finishing the task later than other countries.

Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands plan to convert 100% of their ATMs in the first week.

Geographical contrasts

Finland's geographical lay-out with remote towns in the north and east of the country could also mean there are delays in transporting the cash around.

A limited number of security vans and drivers will hinder efforts to get euro change to retailers before 1 January, says Ms Bywater.

If you are in the cities where there are young people, who speak about 15 different languages, you'll find they are fairly positive about the euro

Pirkko Juntunen
Finnish journalist
The contrast between Finland's high-tech cities and the more remote areas also means opinions over the benefits of the euro are divided.

"If you are in the cities where there are young people, who speak about 15 different languages, and business people, you'll find they are fairly positive about the euro," says Pirkko Juntunen, a Finnish journalist who works in London.

"But in the country or the remote areas, where there are more elderly people and farmers, they dislike the euro and the whole concept of the European Union."

Selling out?

Many of the older generation believe the country is selling out to a city in Belgium that few have heard of, after several hard-fought struggles to gain independence.

Despite winning independence from Russia in 1917, the country has only really stepped out from under the shadow of its old enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

In the latest Eurobarometer survey, support for the European Union had declined, with 23% of the population not seeing any benefits to EU membership.

Only Sweden and the UK have more negative views on the EU.

EU versus the euro

Mr Niinimäki, however, says most Finns support the euro, despite the anti-European sentiment.

It's funny and I don't understand it, but many accept the single currency but not the EU

Rauno Niinimäki
Chief of Finland's Euro project
"It's funny and I don't understand it, but many accept the single currency but not the EU."

According to government studies, two-thirds of Finns support the euro, with many recognising its benefits.

"Look at Sweden - now the economy is not good, the krona has fallen. If it wasn't for the euro, the same would have happened in Finland," says Mr Niinimäki.

Perhaps if the government succeeds in gently easing the euro into general circulation, the Eurobarometer may one day swing the other way.

See also:

30 Aug 01 | Europe
The politics of the euro
07 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Finland
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