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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 20:08 GMT
Italy's euro woes
Burning model lira
Italy has symbolically said goodbye to the lira
By Frances Kennedy in Rome

Italy, a founding member of the European Union and traditionally one of its most ardent supporters, has found itself at the bottom of the class in the introduction of the new currency.

Automatic tellers that failed to distribute euros, interminable queues in post office and banks, and a reluctance by shoppers and retailers to use the new money meant that euro use in Italy lagged well behind all the other partners.

The European Commission in Brussels said only 3% of Italy's cash transactions were in euro on 2 January, compared to 50% in France and 20% in the Netherlands.

By noon on Thursday, only 85% of Italian cash machines were issuing euros, as opposed to 100% in most other EU states.

Banks blamed

Much of the blame for the sluggish euro conversion goes to the Italian banks who failed to convert cash dispensers ahead of the changeover.

Banks did not open over the New Years holiday, and the four day closure created queues on reopening.

euro notes
The euro launch has been smoother in other EU countries

Some of the first victims were pensioners, who had to queue, at times for two or three hours, to collect their payments.

In Naples and Rome, the police were called in to calm angry clients, some of whom refused to leave when the banks closed. Many retailers are still giving Italian lire as change, because they fear their supplies will run out.

Stiff fines for the loss or theft of the crisp new notes, before they became legal tender on 1 January, meant many shop owners ordered only the bare minimum.

Consumers, on the other hands, have taken to paying with big bills to collect the new currency in change. This provoked long queues at motorway toll booths as people returned home from the Christmas holidays.

A computer hitch and automatic machines which accepted only euros provoked chaos at railway stations on Wednesday, with many travellers missing their trains because of the queues for tickets.

Government row

By Thursday there were signs that the teething troubles were easing, but these were overshadowed by a government row over the euro.

Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero, a technocrat, said he was saddened by interviews by his cabinet colleagues in which they criticised the birth of the common currency.

Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi said he "couldn't care less about the euro", while Treasury Minister Giulio Tremonti said jubilation over the euro was for "miracle-makers, faith healers and bankers".

Unlike his EU counterparts, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arranged no public ceremony to celebrate the new money, preferring to stay isolated at one of his luxury villas.

See also:

03 Jan 02 | Business
Euro soars against major currencies
02 Jan 02 | Business
Getting the euro mix right
02 Jan 02 | Business
EU praises euro changeover
02 Jan 02 | Business
Euro's arrival at a glance
02 Jan 02 | Business
Q&A: Euro cash launch
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