January 1 has always been a special day for me. It is the start of a new year, of course, as it is for everyone, but it is also my birthday. And, on January 1, 2002, there was another reason to celebrate: it was the day when the euro area, made up of 12 countries at the time, introduced banknotes and coins for the single currency.
I spent that day with family and friends in our home in Normandy, in France and, shortly before midnight, we went to the nearest cash machine, anxious to get hold of our first euro banknotes. Some of my friends predicted that the switch to the new currency would overload the machines and that the euro banknotes wouldn’t be available. We made a bet: if the machine gave us French francs instead of euro notes, they could keep the money.
After midnight, we tried the cash machine. It dispensed brand new crisp euro banknotes and we all raised a glass to the new European currency.
That personal moment was one small part of the world’s largest ever monetary changeover and the euro area has only grown since. Those 12 countries have become 19, with more than 340 million of us sharing the same currency regardless of language, culture or national borders.
It has helped unite us as Europeans. In the latest Eurobarometer survey, when asked what the European Union means to them, 41 per cent of citizens said they think of the euro. Our single currency was second only to freedom of movement.
Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable.
And for young Europeans, who have only ever known the single currency, it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it. In fact, support for the euro stood at an all-time high in 2021. And according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, our currency now has a 78 per cent approval rate.
Europe and the euro have become inseparable- Christine Lagarde
When I reflect on the euro, I picture the businesses and family enterprises that have succeeded thanks to the advantages of the euro and our single market. From 1990 to 2002, trade between the soon-to-be euro area countries increased by less than five per cent whereas since the introduction of the single currency it has grown by almost 200 per cent.
People have been able to travel without worrying about the hassle and cost of exchanging money and millions of students and professionals are studying and working abroad without having to deal with different currencies.
There is no doubt the euro has made us more resilient. Since the adoption of the single currency, we have been better equipped to handle crises. The recent economic shocks would have been even more serious if it hadn’t been for the stability and integration the euro brought to our single market.
In critical times, such as during the pandemic, having a single currency has been instrumental in coordinating responses across Europe.
The European Central Bank is the custodian of the euro and we are working tirelessly to protect our single currency. It is our job to keep your banknotes secure, just as it is our duty to investigate complementary forms of payment such as a digital euro.
We will now be redesigning our banknotes for the first time, keeping them safe and innovative while updating them to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds. We will seek input from citizens on the theme and design of our future banknotes, which will be published in 2024, before planning their roll-out.
On that cold night in Normandy two decades ago, I couldn’t have predicted that safeguarding the euro would become my full-time job. But that is what I signed up for when I put my name on the banknotes that you hold and use almost every day. That signature represents my commitment to looking after one of our most precious symbols of European unity.
So, let’s have another toast – to a happy 20th anniversary of euro banknotes!
Christine Lagarde is President of European Central Bank.
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