Ian Ellis: Looking back on 20 years of a single currency — the euro

This year’s twentieth anniversary of the introduction of euro notes and coins has caused me to cast my mind back to the UK’s decision to keep sterling, and to reflect on our current protocol paralysis.

By Ian Ellis
Friday, 7th January 2022, 2:27 pm
Updated Friday, 7th January 2022, 2:29 pm
Retaining the pound rather than adopting the euro has not been viewed as particularly detrimental to the UK, but many people feel Brexit has been. The Northern Ireland Protocol has disturbed the delicate balance on which the Belfast Agreement rests
Retaining the pound rather than adopting the euro has not been viewed as particularly detrimental to the UK, but many people feel Brexit has been. The Northern Ireland Protocol has disturbed the delicate balance on which the Belfast Agreement rests

The euro became an electronic currency in 1999 with euro cash not appearing until 2002.

A new euro design is now planned by the European Central Bank, the president of which, Christine Lagarde, has said that after twenty years “it’s time to review the look of our banknotes”.

I do remember what I considered especially elegant French franc banknotes. Hopefully they could be a model for redesigned euro notes.

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Canon Ian M Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

To return to the proposition of the UK ditching the pound sterling to join the new euro, it was quite a dilemma at the time, with public opinion deeply split.

In order to try to form an opinion on the matter myself, I bought a small book, published in 2001, which I have carefully kept as a memento of the time.

It was written by award-winning journalist Anthony Browne who had been economics correspondent of the BBC and then The Observer newspaper.

Entitled ‘The Euro: Should Britain Join: Yes or No?’, a glance inside showed that key questions were followed by the arguments for and against particular stances.

Surely here I would find the answer.

However, somewhat to my dismay, reading the book I got the impression that it was rather a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.

The final question asked, “Do the benefits outweigh the costs?”.

Surely now I would get the answer.

Yet it was still Yes and No.

‘Yes’, any drawbacks would be “either small, or easily countered”, and: “If Britain stays out, we will lose out as European industry outstrips us in terms of competitiveness, and foreign investors decide to stay away.”

But ‘No’, the potential costs were “huge”, and there was a grim warning: “While the euro remains unproven, there is also the very real risk that it could collapse completely, at absolutely colossal economic cost.”

Individual eurozone nations’ inability to set interest rates for their country seemed to me to be a considerable downside. However, in a recent article in the Irish Independent, Christine Lagarde wrote that it has been thanks to the single currency and market that since the euro’s inception trade among the eurozone countries has seen tremendous growth.

She added: “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.”

Of course, we have been living on the island of Ireland with both the euro and pound sterling.

Perhaps some businesses have found it a drawback but as an individual who visits the Republic frequently I can’t say it has been any great trouble to me.

However, I do remember, when visiting the German city of Bremen in 2009 in an official church capacity, being invited to a reception at the Bremen chamber of commerce.

I asked a couple of businessmen whether they thought the single currency was a good thing and they were emphatic that it was.

Albeit as someone who is not an economist by any means, I must say that I don’t get the impression that retaining the pound has been viewed as particularly detrimental to the UK, whereas I do acknowledge that many people feel Brexit has been.

Which brings me to the current Brexit protocol debate.

While as a church figure it is not really for me to advocate a party political view, non-party political principles are another matter.

I believe it is clear that the protocol as it stands leaves a democratic deficit in that certain regulations will be made for us by an outside party, the EU.

While Stormont would periodically have the ability to ditch the whole arrangement, or to retain it, and while some consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly might be arranged, none of this seems to me to make up for proper democratic input into regulation making. Moreover, a Stormont decision could be by simple majority as opposed to requiring cross-community consensus, a fundamental value in the Belfast Agreement.

On the other hand, it can be argued that putting up with this is a price worth paying for a peaceful future.

However, because of strong feelings on the sovereignty issue, the protocol arrangements could in fact end up destroying the peace rather than protecting it and a collapse of the Stormont administration would surely be in no-one’s interest.

Violence is certainly not the way forward yet neither is being cavalier about the possibility that it could return.

The Belfast Agreement rests on a delicate balance. Disturbing that balance, as the protocol does, is hazardous.

It has been surprising that some politicians both at home and abroad have seemed not alert enough to recognise that protecting the Belfast Agreement requires protecting the interests and respecting the aspirations of all parts of the community.

It is clear that the negotiators are going to have to come up with some very creative answers very quickly indeed.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

Peter Robinson is recovering from an operation. He hopes to resume his column soon

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