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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 08:33 GMT
Currencies consigned to history
The Farina-Schaubi family
The Farina-Schaubi family looks at historic money
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By Emma Clark
BBC News Online business reporter

The British Museum is holding an exhibition on the changing currencies of Western Europe, many of which ceased to be legal tender on Thursday. BBC News Online talks to tourists visiting the museum about the euro and the passing of their old currencies.

"A piece of Europe in our hands" is how Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, greeted the launch of the euro.

At last, the citizens of Europe had been given a tangible, everyday symbol of the region's political and economic integration.

Europe after Napoleon
1816: The Netherlands adopt the guilder
1833: Belgium adopts the franc
1848: Luxembourg adopts the franc
1850: Switzerland adopts the franc
1861: Italy adopts the lira
1869: Spain adopts the peseta
Jonathan Williams, one of the curators of the exhibition at the British Museum, says: "The euro is seen by the Commission as one of the major motors of creating a new Western Europe-wide identity.

"If the euro is a success, I think it will give the peoples of Europe a sense of something serious in common which so far the institutions in the European Union haven't done."

Stefano Farina, an Italian visiting London with his German wife and family, agrees.

"It is very important to have one money. It unites the people of Europe."

National unity

Mr Prodi is not the first politician to use a currency to bind people together. And indeed the single currency is not Europe's first experiment with monetary union.

Over the past few hundred years there have been conspicuous efforts by individual countries to use a currency to emphasise a sense of nationhood.

Jonathan Williams
Mr Williams: currency brought national distinctions
For example, when the modern state of Greece was founded in 1832, the government let its people dream of a more glorious past by naming its new currency the drachma, after an ancient Greek coin.

Similarly, after Finland achieved independence in 1917 from the Russian Empire, it adorned its banknotes with naked figures that were symbolic of the vitality of the new Finnish state, says Mr Williams.

There have also been at least three other attempts to achieve monetary union among several European countries.

These include the Latin Monetary Union of the late 19th century between France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and later Greece.

Like other similar attempts, the lack of a central bank to coordinate economic policy led to fluctuations in the values of the coins in different states, and the demise of the system.

Controlling the currency

The phenomenon of using currency to encapsulate nationhood belongs to the 19th and 20th centuries.

The making of nations
1860: Finland adopts the markka
1871: Germany adopts the mark
1873-75: Denmark, Sweden and Norway introduce krone as a common currency
1910: Portugal adopts the escudo
1924: Austria introduces the schilling
1928: First issue of Irish coins and notes
1948: Deutschmark introduced in West Germany
"That was when the state started to exert really effectively exclusive control over money circulating in its borders," says Mr Williams.

"It started to get national distinctions into people's heads."

Even the new euro coins - which have been designed by the different countries involved - boast images that emphasise national differences.

The Germans have opted for the Brandenburg gate, while many of the monarchies have retained the heads of their king or queen.

"But the fact is that they get mixed up across Europe and will perform the function of mixing people's national symbols," points out Mr Williams.

Nostalgia fest?

But if the governments of the past worked so hard to instil a sense of nationhood, are the people of Europe nostalgic about losing their currencies?

The Italians are of course sentimental people so there are some nostalgic feelings

Stefano Farina
Italian tourist
Clara, a tourist visiting from Spain, says no. She has enjoyed looking at the museum's display of old Spanish notes, but feels a single currency is the way forward.

Mr Farina is similarly amenable, not withstanding his Southern temperament.

"The Italians are of course sentimental people so there is some nostalgic feelings," he explains.

"But the Italians are also very enthusiastic in everything so they took up the euro with great enthusiasm, more than in other countries."

His German wife, Daniela Schaubi, who travels around Europe for her work, is more pragmatic.

"I am glad about the euro because I travel very much between Italy, Austria and Germany, so it's much better - but it's a pity that Britain didn't join the euro," she adds, laughing.

Past associations

Mr Williams believes the Germans are ready to accept the euro, despite their pride in the Deutschmark, because they have positive associations of a previous currency changeover in 1948.

A display of euro notes and coins
A display of the new euro notes and coins
The transition from the failed Reichsmark to the Deutschmark was a "neutral success" and brought reunification with the rest of Europe.

"My [German] mother-in-law remembers that day when they finally had [a currency] that was worth something," he adds.

By a different measure, he says Italians and the Portuguese are less bothered about switching to the euro because of the relative under-performance of the lira and escudo.

Certainly, the practical advantages of a single currency seem to have won over many Europeans.

Even Morando Bertocini - a Scot of Italian ethnicity - is ready to abandon the British pound.

"I am not at all attached. I find it very inconvenient when I travel. It's what you can buy with the money that matters," he says, rattling some new euro coins in his pockets.

Inevitably, the enduring success of the euro will depend upon its economic success and the visible benefits it brings to its users.

But despite all the historical baggage of Europe's passing currencies, it seems Europeans are surprisingly undaunted by their bright, new coins and crisp euro notes.

The British Museum's exhibition "Brief Lives, Changing Currencies in Western Europe" will continue until 8 September.

The British Museum's Jonathan Williams
tells the story of Western European currencies
Legacy Currencies
See also:

26 Feb 02 | Europe
Coining a new Europe
19 Feb 02 | Europe
Your memories of the French franc
28 Jan 02 | Europe
The guilder goes unmourned
03 Jan 02 | Business
Europe's economic adventure
11 Dec 01 | Business
Banknote buffs brace for the euro
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