By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
While it is not well known, Europe has flirted with a single unified currency since the founding of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865. Disbanded in 1927, the Latin Monetary Union was not quickly forgotten, and a scant two years later, Gustav Stresemann, then-German Foreign Minister, formally enquired during a League of Nations meeting in 1929 about the feasibility of a pan-European currency. Stresemann was attempting to address the growing economic division within Europe resulting from World War I. However, the Great Depression hit six weeks later, and the League of Nations was financially unable to implement his suggestions.
Forty years and another brutal war later, the European Commission was established in the first real attempt to create a single European monetary zone. The 1969 Barre Report, released by the Hague summit, clearly laid out the aim of the new European Commission as the pursuit of “greater co-ordination of economic policies and monetary cooperation” (Barre, 1969). Another decade passed, and after significant negotiations, the European Monetary System (EMS) was enacted. Created as an adjustable exchange rate agreement between members of the European Economic Community, the EMS was intended to prevent the individual national currencies from fluctuating in relative value too dramatically. To this end, the national authorities adopted the European Currency Unit (ECU), the official monetary unit of the EMS. A unit of account, the ECU was not a physical currency, but rather a grouping of national currencies used to set exchange rates and reserves.
In 1989, Europe took its next step towards the Euro Zone with the implementation of The Single European Act. This law addressed the economic stability of a single market and the need for internal cooperation. Finally, all of these decades of negotiation culminated in December 1995 when the relevant authorities agreed upon the Euro’s name and a launch date of January 1, 1999. However, for the first three years, the Euro was to be an “invisible currency” with no physical circulating coins or banknotes released until January 1, 2002 (Bouchard). This helped give the constituent countries time to produce enough stock for circulation. During this period, the Euro was used only for accounting and electronic transfers.
Euro Coin Design Process
Between the 12th and 13th of April 1996, at a conference held in Verona, Italy, the European Commission decided that the reverse face of the Euro coins would share the same design, regardless of which member state it was struck by. This design was of vital importance since each country was sacrificing a major National symbol for the sake of unity. For example, the Euro symbol “€” is the Greek letter epsilon representing the first letter of “Europe” and with two parallel lines to symbolize stability.
To that end, the Commission planned a two-phase continent-wide design completion. Each state would select and submit three complete sets of coin designs and then a diverse pan-European jury of experts was chosen to select the nine best series. These were then submitted to the various national mint directors for an assessment on the feasibility of production before an opinion poll was released to the general public. Finally, the top design series was chosen by a committee of the national finance ministers and then confirmed by all the heads of state.
All designs were required to fall within three themes: ornamental or architectural imagery, unified European ideals, and famous European individuals.
This long process began in March 1997 when the pan-European jury met to review the submissions. Eventually it was decided that the series submitted by the Belgian coin designer Luc Luycx would be used. Luycx created a series that featured a unified representation of Europe without national boundaries. More specifically, the copper-covered steel 1, 2, and 5 cent coins show Europe on a globe with the denomination to the left. The Nordic gold 10, 20, and 50 cent coins displayed the European Union (EU) as a grouping of nations on a map with the denomination to the right. Finally, the bi-metal 1 and 2 euro coins show the continent without borders. These designs received a 64% positive approval rating from the Union wide opinion poll.
(In 2007, the 10, 20, and 50 cent coins, as well as the 1 and 2 euro designs, were all updated to show the new expanded membership of the Union.)
Production and Release
The striking of coins featuring the approved designs began in the French town of Pessac on the 11th of May 1998. French Economy Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn attended the formal ceremony and initiated production by striking the first one-euro coin, making France the first nation to produce the Euro. He even bit the coin and proclaimed: “This is the real thing, it’s no copy. It’s the first produced in France as well as in Europe” (CNN, 1998). France, along with Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, and Spain all struck coins bearing the dates 1999, 2000, and 2001, while the coins struck during the same period by the remaining seven nations were dated 2002. Yet despite some minor promotional early releases, virtually all of these coins were released in 2002.
Over the three years from 1998-2001, the member states printed an estimated 7.4 billion notes and struck 38.2 billion coins in preparation for a mass release on January 1, 2002. When these coins and banknotes were released to the public in the 12 initial countries, it was, as the EU claims, “the biggest cash changeover in history” (EU, 2022).
Interestingly, while the official turnover was scheduled for midnight on January 1, 2002, in Frankfurt where the European Central Bank is located, the first cash sale using Euros occurred a few hours earlier on the French island of Réunion located in the Indian Ocean. In a highly staged event, René-Paul Victoria, the mayor of the regional capital of Saint-Denis, haggled with a fruit vendor for a kilo of produce (Irish Times, 2002). The end price was 75 cents.
The subsequent rollout was surprisingly smooth, mostly due to the years of planning and promotional material presented to the public. During a press conference held in Frankfurt on the 30th of August 2001, Professor Eugenio Domingo Solans, a member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank, stated that between 1998 and 2001 the Bank worked with 2,600 national and international organizations in a massive promotional and educational campaign. This work was centered around the idea of the Euro as a symbol of European unity and identity under the slogan “the EURO. OUR money” (Solans, 2001).
Official policy stated that starting on January 1, 2002, citizens could exchange old currency at any bank. However, while the public could still initially use old currencies in commerce, all businesses would only give change in euros. Additionally, ATMs would only dispense the new euros. Only Germany acted slightly differently, and on January 1, the old Deutsche Mark was demonetized. All old money needed to be exchanged at a bank.
Over the past two decades, the Euro coin has become one of the major global currencies and nearly 50 billion pieces of all denominations have been struck to date.
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Barre, 1969 – https://ec.europa.eu/archives/emu_history/documentation/chapter2/19690212en015coordineconpoli.pdf
Bouchard, 2021 – https://www.uakron.edu/economics/academics/seniorprojects/2021/BouchardKSeniorProjectSpring2021.pdf
CNN, 1998 – http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9805/11/euro.money/
EU, 2022 – https://european-union.europa.eu/institutions-law-budget/euro/history-and-purpose_en
–. – https://european-union.europa.eu/institutions-law-budget/euro/design_en
Irish Times, 2002 – https://www.irishtimes.com/news/kilo-of-lychees-the-first-cash-sale-in-euros-1.1045240
Solans, 2001 – https://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/key/date/2001/html/sp010830_4.en.html
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).