Special Report

The Euro

"So," said Jörg Haider with a slightly unpleasant smile, "you like the new Esperanto money?" I was interviewing the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party in early 2003, at a time when he was also applauding Saddam Hussein and supporting the suicide bombers in Israel and Palestine. His sarcastic comment about the newly introduced euro notes ...

"So," said Jörg Haider with a slightly unpleasant smile, "you like the new Esperanto money?" I was interviewing the leader of Austria’s Freedom Party in early 2003, at a time when he was also applauding Saddam Hussein and supporting the suicide bombers in Israel and Palestine. His sarcastic comment about the newly introduced euro notes made me want to believe in the new currency even more. On a long reporting trip to Europe, I had been rather affected to find myself using the same money in Paris one evening as I had used to pay a Berlin taxi driver in the morning. I remembered how the Franco-German coal and steel agreement that was the nucleus of the European project was designed to make war within continental Europe "materially impossible." On New Year’s Day 2002, it suddenly became possible to employ the same currency in Finland as in Greece (which surrendered the world’s oldest surviving monetary denomination in the form of the drachma). Why should one listen to any sneering about that, especially from a man not fully reconciled to the outcome of the Second World War?

My internationalist prejudice is not something for which I feel like apologizing, even now. I remember how I twisted with embarrassment when Norman Lamont, British Prime Minister John Major’s chancellor of the exchequer, returned from Brussels with the grand news that he had won the right to keep the visage of Her Majesty the Queen on any British version of the euro bill. If the Germans could make the remarkable sacrifice of the deutsche mark, their greatest postwar achievement, then why quibble over the insignia of the House of Windsor? I looked forward to showing my children the old British currency, just as I had kept a sentimental box of the ancient British coinage that had been making holes in our pockets before decimalization.

And now I can’t quite believe that my children, or their children, will be using the "Esperanto money" after all. As suddenly as it began, the whole idea of a common currency seems to have receded. The likelihood of new countries adopting the euro has become remote ever since the French and the Dutch repudiated the proposed European constitution earlier this year. But more than that, there is a pronounced nostalgia for the old money in Germany and in other nations that have already adopted the euro. If a referendum is involved, I cannot see the British electorate voting to abandon the pound, with or without the queen’s head, in any circumstances. The Scandinavian periphery now seems less, rather than more, persuadable. As for the new and aspiring members, such as Poland and Turkey, one winces to think of the disillusionment that will set in now that so many brave promises will be postponed.

This economic setback is determined in part by political and bureaucratic failures large and small. Europe’s passport, to take a tiny example, could have been worth flourishing at a frontier post. But a series of dull compromises reduced it to a tawdry paperback, bound in some off-color maroon: too obviously a document designed by a committee. Then I should like to know at what dire meeting it was decided that the first seven words of the preamble to the European Constitution would read: "His Majesty The King of the Belgians…" Until Albania or Belarus joins, which seems a long way off, Belgium and its monarch come first in the European alphabet. But this is not how things were done in Philadelphia, and the emphasis is not at all designed to produce a more perfect union.

I take absolutely no pleasure in saying this. I did not at all care for the alliance of parties, from xenophobic to post-Stalinist, that combined to defeat the constitution and that now yearn for the euro to be undone. But I can’t rid myself of the memory of that smirk on Haider’s face. If the euro is going to be only one currency among many, then it will have lost its essential point. Esperanto aimed to replace the Babel of competing languages with one universal tongue, and it succeeded only in adding an extra tongue that was a mere hybrid. A euro that is legal tender only in some parts of Europe will not only emphasize the continent’s failure to eliminate differences: It will itself become one of those differences.

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