Tue, Dec 27, 2011 - Page 10 News List

Honeymoon over for Europeans and their money


The euro, rolled out as a cash currency with a string of promises about easy travel, European unity and stable prices, has left crisis-rattled consumers decidedly ambivalent a decade on.

On the streets of Berlin, Madrid and Bratislava, the view is similar: Despite its clear upsides, the transition to the euro hiked the cost of living even as it introduced deep political and economic uncertainty in the bloc.

The euro, the most tangible manifestation of European integration in everyday life, has become a symbol of the debt crisis and the economic downturn.

“Since we rolled out the euro in France, we gave up our purchasing power,” said Viviane Vangic, 37, in downtown Paris.

Eighty-five percent of Germans believe that the euro has pushed up prices, according to a recent survey.

And Maria Angeles in Madrid says that “when we went to the euro, what used to cost 100 pesetas now costs a euro,” or 160 pesetas.

Although the statistics do not bear out this impression, showing about 2 percent inflation each year over the last decade, the accusation of a built-in price hike is widespread among those who remember their old currency.

This is particularly true among the newcomers to the euro.

“All the prices have gone up since we adopted the euro. It has always been hard for pensioners to make ends meet,” says Elena, a 72-year-old in Bratislava, Slovakia, which adopted the euro in 2009. “But now young families are also struggling to make a living.”

Younger Europeans, who are suffering from disproportionately high unemployment in many countries, have little memory of their national currencies and take the euro for granted.

“I don’t even know to convert anymore. I count in euros,” said Stephanie Jordan, a 23-year-old Parisian.

“I am committed to the euro — since I’ve been spending money it’s been in euros,” said Ann Hillig, a 24-year-old in Berlin.

For her the mighty Deutschmark, for which Germans profess their love in poll after poll, is now a distant memory.

Hillig says she hopes that the euro has a bright future ahead of it and finds it “exciting to flip over coins and say, ‘oh, this one comes from there or there,’” she said, referring to the national symbols from each of the 17 member states on the back of every euro coin.

Moving from one country to another with the same bills and coins is generally seen as one of the great strengths of the euro, eliminating the expense, inconvenience and waste of converting currencies. However, tough economic times have diminished that advantage.

“You don’t have to change money when traveling, but now I don’t travel anymore because it’s expensive,” says Rodny Kamil, 29, a fish seller in Bratislava.

“My life has got more difficult since the euro adoption, but not only the currency, also the times have changed. With the euro, I have a feeling that I can buy less for the same amount of money than I could a few years ago. So in order to buy what I need, I have to work more,” Kamil said.

His compatriot, Jano Bosansky, a 50-year-old entrepreneur, is skeptical about the future of the eurozone.

“We are saving richer indebted member states, lending money to them,” he said.

At the same time, “we are a cheap workforce and everything is more expensive,” he added.

In Spain, 70 percent of citizens believe that the euro does them little or no good, according to a recent survey. However, in Greece, epicenter of the debt crisis, nostalgia for the drachma has not yet taken hold.

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