Should we hail the momentous decision by eleven European nations to opt for a single currency as a sign of vanishing frontiers, and should we greet the euro they produced as the rival of the dollar, symbolically heralding some limitation on the imperial strength of the world’s only superpower? Or, on the contrary, do the Brussels celebrations launching Europe’s E.M.U. (the Economic and Monetary Union) announce the opposite: the spread of the American model at its worst to the whole of the Western world?
Such conflicting questions can be raised because we are dealing with something unprecedented. This is no minor experiment. The eleven, on their own, have a population of 290 million and a gross domestic product roughly 10 percent less than that of the United States. Never has an attempt been made on the same scale to transfer monetary policy to a supranational central bank. The logic of such a move points toward political unity, some form of confederation. Hence the talk of Euroland (sounding suspiciously like Disneyland) standing up to the United States.
But a construction built from above and having a bank as its foundation is unlikely to produce a pattern radically different from the American one. Either the Europeans will have toiled and tightened their belts to erect a structure unable to stand up to inner tensions and foreign pressure, or they will have built an unwanted imitation of the U.S. model.
However, there is a third possibility. A monetary scheme imposed from above may provoke popular resistance. For the past few years, the international financial establishment has inspired an offensive against Europe’s welfare state. Now, under the banner of "flexibility," the main attack is to be against wages. Like the French, who rebelied in 1995 against the first offensive, the rest of Europe may rise up in defense. Indeed the working people and their unions may grasp that, in the new context, they do not have to give up the struggle but have to expand it beyond national frontiers. To the bourgeois Europe of bankers and bureaucrats, they could oppose a Europe from below that defends the interests of the people and not those of big business.
Let us not anticipate. All that was decided at the inaugural meeting in Brussels was the admission of eleven members to the new monetary union, the unofficial rate at which they will exchange their currencies into the euro and, after a showdown between Paris and Bonn, the appointment of Germany’s favorite Dutchman, Wim Duisenberg, as the first head of the European Central Bank, nominally for eight years, but with the promise to hand over the presidency in 2002 to his French successor-only that, and the timetable. By next January the banks, bourses and businesses will start their transition to the euro, while ordinary people will begin to learn the conversion tables. By January 1, 2002, the latter will finally begin using euros and cents, and within six months marks, francs and lire will be driven out of circulation. By then the European Union will have had to alter its institutions to admit newcomers from Eastern Europe. Thus, in the next four years there should be plenty of room for maneuver. The purpose of the notes that follow is to throw some light on this historical venture into uncharted territory.
The euro is only a stage in Europe’s integration, which began forty years ago with the six original members of the Common Market, which was designed to keep the Federal Republic of Germany within the Western orbit and to stand up to the Soviet Union. It prospered during the "golden age of capitalism," and marked time thereafter. Over the years it gathered nine new members, including Britain, losing in cohesion what it gained in numbers. Integration got a new impetus in the late eighties through massive deregulation, which was part of the search for a single market. The Maastricht Treaty, signed at the beginning of 1992, was to crown this edifice with a monetary union. The single currency was also aimed, once again, at keeping Germany tied to the West, this time after the fall of the Berlin wall and reunification.