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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 10:12 GMT
Euro revives earlier monetary union
Collage of national currencies
Old currencies - but none much older than 200 years
By Andrew Meadows and Jonathan Williams of the British Museum's Department of Coins and Medals

By the end of February 2002 the currencies of the 12 countries of the eurozone will have ceased to be legal tender.

100 Euro banknote (detail)
Young nations: Europe as shown on Euro note
Those being supplanted by the euro are almost all national currencies.

They seem to have been around forever, but their origins really only go as far back as the foundation of the modern nation states that gave birth to them.

And none of these is really much more than 200 years old.

Antiquity

The Greek word "drachma", for example, was used of coins in antiquity.

But the modern drachma is a 19th Century antiquarian revival, and is only as old as the foundation of the Greek Kingdom in 1833.


Various nation states attempted to unite the different currencies of Europe in the 19th Century

The names of many of Europe's modern currencies have their roots in earlier European history, like the Portuguese escudo, the Austrian schilling, or the German mark.

But these currencies can really only claim a continuous history back to 1911, 1924 and 1948, when they were introduced by the newly republican Portugal, and the Federal Republics of Austria and Germany respectively.

The oldest of the European national currencies soon to disappear is arguably the French franc, introduced as the main currency unit of Revolutionary France in 1795.

However, the word had been used to describe earlier coins and was used colloquially of the previous royal currency, the livre.

Latin Monetary Union

In the late 19th Century, coins were still made of gold and silver and the value of a nation's currency was intimately connected with the amount of precious metal its coins contained.

Various nation states attempted to unite the different currencies of Europe.


Being Italian does not depend on using the Italian lira

The grandest experiment in this direction was the so-called Latin Monetary Union.

On 23 December 1865, a treaty was signed between France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland.

It provided for the mutual acceptance of each other's gold and silver coin, which was henceforth to be issued according to the standards of the French franc.

This group was joined by Greece in 1876.

Vatican euro coin
The Vatican is joining the euro bandwagon
These five European countries lived together in uneasy monetary union for the remainder of the 19th century, and theoretically on into the 20th.

In the end, however, this bold experiment failed.

Fluctuations in the relative values of gold and silver, inherently mismatched states of national economy, and the lack of a central bank to exert even the simplest of controls over currency issues all contributed to a swift demise.

The experiment of Latin Monetary Union is of more than quaint antiquarian interest as the nations of the Eurozone - and Britain - stand at the brink of broader monetary union at the start of the 21st Century.

National identity

Quite apart from the crucial economic questions of whether it will succeed on the international stage, will the peoples of Europe accept it - or will they regard it as an unwanted foreign imposition?

Curiously for those many Britons for whom the pound sterling has become such a symbol of national sovereignty, they probably will take to it.

Most continental Europeans are happy to distinguish between their various historic identities, either national - German, Spanish - or regional - Bavarian, Catalan - and their current political organisation into nation states with national currencies.

In other words, being Italian does not depend on using the Italian lira.

Would the British say the same about themselves and the pound?

The answer at the moment is too close to call. This may change, but we are not there yet.

An exhibition: Brief Lives: Changing Currencies in Western Europe, which looks at the history of Europe's national currencies, will run at The British Museum from 21 February to 8 September 2002

Legacy Currencies
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