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Last Updated: Friday, 4 November 2005, 17:12 GMT
EU warning for euro hopefuls
By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Brussels

Finland
People will always be wary of the changeover to the euro
New members of the European Union hoping to adopt the euro as their national currency must step up efforts if they are to be ready in the next few years, the European Commission has said in a report.

The Commission also urged the new members to do more to calm the fears of their citizens about the euro.

According to a recent survey, three-quarters of eastern Europeans are afraid the changeover will bring big price rises.

Without doubt, introducing the euro is a mammoth task.

Poland, the biggest of the new EU member states, will have to mint up to five billion new coins. Slovenia, one of the smallest, will print 74 million banknotes and 235 million euro coins.

Only one country, Estonia, has thought of how to get rid of the old notes and coins - something that proved a major headache for the 12 EU countries that adopted the euro in 2002.

Timetable

Estonia, Slovenia and Lithuania, which plan to join the eurozone in 2007, are the best prepared of all the 10 new members.

Slovakia, which plans to adopt the euro in 2009, was also praised for the practical preparations it has made. But the European Commissioner for Monetary Affairs, Joaquin Almunia, urged them all to do more faster.

I think they fear mostly the possible abuses in the changeover
Joaquin Almunia,
Commissioner for Monetary Affairs

"Let's remember that it took the current eurozone members six years to get ready for joining the euro," he said.

"So, a year and a half before the date when the first potential candidates can join the euro-zone, or even two and a half years for some other new member states, is really not much time to step up the preparation."

The European Commission did not say which countries would be able to join the euro first. That will happen next year, after an assessment which Mr Almunia insisted would be strict.

In order to join, countries must have low inflation rates, small budget deficits and limited currency fluctuations against the euro. Some of them, like Cyprus and Hungary, are already facing problems and have delayed their target date for adopting the euro.

Poland, the biggest of the new EU members, is the only country that has not set a date. On the contrary, the new Eurosceptic government in Warsaw wants to increase the budget deficit.

Public pressure

Mr Almunia called the proposal "unreasonable."

He also warned against the idea of holding a referendum in Poland or anywhere else on the introduction of the euro, arguing that all new member states are obliged to adopt the euro sooner or later and most of them have already held referendums on EU membership.

But Mr Almunia admitted he was concerned that public opinion in eastern Europe was turning against the euro, with a poll carried out in September showing that 75% fear price hikes.

"I think they fear mostly the possible abuses in the changeover and we are repeating in all those countries that those abuses that have taken place in some countries in the first changeover can be avoided if we are well-prepared," he said.

"And we have time for this preparation and this report will help to boost the efforts for a good and smooth changeover."

Persuasion

Italians and Germans in particular have complained that prices in euro are significantly higher than those in lira or Deutschmarks. The euro was also a factor in the rejection of the European Constitution by French and Dutch voters earlier this year.

The European Commission estimates that the impact of the euro was actually limited to between 0.1% and 0.3 % and affected just a few areas, such as restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas.

But those areas strongly influence public perceptions, so Mr Almunia and his colleagues will have to try harder to persuade people that inflation and interest rates have seldom been so low in Europe.

On Thursday, the European Central Bank - which sets the rates for the eurozone - left its key interest rate unchanged at a historic low of 2%, while the Federal Reserve raised US interest rates again to 4%.


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