The euro (€; ISO 4217 code EUR) is the currency of twelve European Union member states: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City which formerly used the French Franc or the Italian Lira as their currency, mint their own Euro coins in small amounts. The euro is also the currency of Montenegro and Kosovo and is used in Andorra as well. The euro is the result of the most significant monetary reform in Europe since the Roman Empire. Though the euro can be seen simply as a mechanism for perfecting the Single European Market, facilitating free trade between the members of the Eurozone, the euro is also a key part of the European project of political integration.
The euro is administered by the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), composed of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Eurozone central banks operating in member states. The ECB (headquartered in Frankfurt am Main, Germany) has sole authority to set monetary policy; the other members of the ESCB participate in the printing, minting and distribution of notes and coins, and the operation of the Eurozone payment system.
The euro is divided into 100 cents, but various vernacular terms are also used in some countries: in Greece, the name leptó, plural leptá (Λεπτά) is used instead, and in Italy the original word "centesimo", from which "cent" is derived, is used currently. In France, people tend to keep using "centime", the subdivision of their former money (French franc). And in Spain everyone uses "céntimo", much more natural sounding in Spanish than "cent". In Finland the Finnish-speaking people use "sentti", and the Swedish-speaking people use "cent". The form "cent" is officially used in the singular and in the plural in English (see the relevant section below).
All euro coins have a common side showing the denomination (value) and a national side showing an image specifically chosen by the country that issued it; the monarchies often have a picture of their reigning monarch, other countries usually have their national symbols. All the different coins can be used in all the participating member states: for example, a euro coin bearing an image of the Spanish king is legal tender not only in Spain, but also in all the other nations where the euro is in use. There are two-euro, one-euro, fifty-cent, twenty-cent, ten-cent, five-cent, two-cent and one-cent coins, though the latter two are not generally used in Finland or the Netherlands (but are still legal tender).
Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides. Notes are issued in the following amounts: €500, €200, €100, €50, €20, €10, and €5. Some higher denominations are not issued in some countries, though again, are legal tender.
The euro was established by the provisions in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on European Union that was used to establish an economic and monetary union. In order to participate in the new currency, member states had to meet strict criteria such as a budget deficit of less than three per cent of GDP, a debt ratio of less than sixty per cent of GDP, combined with low inflation and interest rates close to the EU average.
Due to differences in national conventions for rounding and significant digits, all conversion between the national currencies had to be carried out using the process of triangulation via the euro.
Having a single currency is expected to increase the economic interdependency of and the ease of trade between the EU members that have adopted the euro. This, in theory, should be beneficial for citizens of the euro area, as increases in trade are historically one of the main driving forces of economic growth. Moreover, this would fit with the long-term purpose of a unified market within the European Union.
A major benefit is the removal of bank currency transaction charges that previously was a significant cost to both individuals and businesses when changing from one currency to another. Conversely, banks will suffer a significant reduction in profits with the loss of this income.
A second effect of the common European currency is that differences in prices—in particular in price levels—will decrease. Differences in prices can trigger arbitrage, e.g. trade between countries, which will equalise prices across the euro area. Often this will also result in increased competition between companies, which should help to contain inflation and which therefore will be beneficial to consumers.
Some economists are concerned about the possible dangers of adopting a single currency for a large and diverse area. Because the Eurozone has a single monetary policy (and so a single interest rate), set by the ECB, it cannot be fine-tuned for the economic situation in each individual country. Public investment and fiscal policy in each country is thus the only way in which economic changes can be introduced specific to each region or nation. Eurozone members are experiencing large variations in inflation and unemployment, though not yet great enough to cause significant economic damage.
Others point out that the Eurozone is similar in size and population to the United States, which has a single currency and a single monetary policy set by the Federal Reserve. However, the individual states that make up the USA have less regional autonomy and a more homogeneous economy than the nations of the EU. Of particular concern is the notion that the economies of the EU may not all be 'in sync'—each may be at a different stage in the boom and bust cycle, or just be experiencing different inflationary pressures. Labour mobility is also higher in the United States than across the Eurozone.
It can also be argued that the single currency works for the USA because the US dollar is a hegemonic currency. Before the euro, eighty per cent of the world's currency reserves were held in US dollars. This gives the US economy a huge subsidy in that reserve dollars are invested in US institutions or foreign institutions under US control. This subsidy helps cushion the effects of a possible strong dollar hurting certain regions of the USA.
If the euro were to become either a hegemonic currency replacing the dollar or a co-hegemonic currency equal in reserve status to the dollar, some of the subsidy the USA gains would be transferred to the EU and help balance out some of the problems of the present heterogeneous economic structure still in place.
It has been said that the euro would add great liquidity to the financial markets in Europe. Governments and companies can now borrow money in euros instead of their local currency, and this would allow access to many more sources of funds. Other economists consider that the potential strength of the Eurozone would be in the coherent efforts of a virtual greater super-economy, in which it is now potentially easier to create stronger financial associations, rather than in the mere sum of single liquidities.
Part of the euro's strength in the period 2001-2004 was thought to be due to more attractive interest rates in Europe than in the United States. The US Federal Reserve has had maintained lower rates than the ECB for some years, despite key European economies, notably Germany, growing relatively slowly or not at all. This is attributed in part to the ECB's duty to check inflation across the Eurozone, which in high-performing countries such as Republic of Ireland is above the ECB's target.
However, although the interest rate differential formed part of the backdrop, the main a posteriori justification for the euro's continuing ascent against the dollar was the concern over the huge unsustainable US current account deficits. The market has been awash with concerns about the US twin deficits, which have been a key driver of dollar weakness. The US budget deficit is about $427 billion, or 3.7% of gross domestic product (GDP), while the current account—the broadest trade measure since it adds investment flows—hit a record $166.18bn shortfall in the second quarter of 2004.
A key factor is that a number of Asian currencies are rising less against the dollar than the euro is. In the case of China, the renminbi is pegged against the dollar, whilst the Japanese yen is supported by intervention (and the threat of it) by the Bank of Japan. This means much of the pressure from a falling dollar is translated into a rising euro.
The euro's climb from its lows began shortly after it was introduced as a cash currency. In the time between 1999 and 2002, eurosceptics tried to imply the weak euro was a sign that the euro experiment was doomed to fail. But it can also be said that its weakness in this period was due to low confidence in a currency that did not exist in "real" form. Once the euro became "real" in the sense of existing in the form of cash, the confidence in the euro rose and the increasing perception that it was here to stay helped increase its value. This effect was probably significant in the euro's decline and recovery between 1999 and 2002, but other factors are more significant since then.
Despite the euro's rise in value, as well as the value of other major and minor currencies, the US trade deficits continue to rise. Economic theory would suggest that a fall in the dollar and a rise in the euro should lead to an improvement in US exports and a decline in US imports, as the former becomes cheaper and the latter more expensive. However, this depends to some extent on how currency costs are passed down the supply chain. Furthermore, the declining dollar makes foreign investment in the US cheaper (although also reducing the return), so that continuing foreign investment may underpin the dollar to some extent.
The role of the dollar as the world's de facto reserve currency helps support both the dollar and the US budget deficit - but it depends on the continued willingness of foreigners to finance both. Central banks and others finance the budget by acquiring newly-issued, dollar-denominated US government bonds, which they need to acquire dollars for. If at some point foreigners become unwilling to accept new bonds at the prevailing interest rate (perhaps because the falling dollar is reducing the bonds' value too much), the dollar will fall even more - or the US will have to raise interest rates, which would reduce economic growth.
There is speculation that the strength of the euro relative to the dollar might encourage the use of the euro as an alternative reserve currency; Saddam Hussein's Iraq switched its currency reserves from dollars to euros in 2000. Moves by central banks with major reserve currency holdings such as those of India or China to switch some of their reserves from dollars to euros, or even of OPEC countries to switch the currency they trade in from dollars to euros, will further reinforce the dollar's decline. In 2004, the Bank for International Settlements reported the proportion of bank deposits held in euros rising to 20%, from 12% in 2001, and it is continuously rising. The falling dollar also raises returns for US investors from investing in foreign stocks, encouraging a switch which further depresses the dollar.
The rise in the euro should dampen Eurozone exports, but there is little sign of this happening yet. The main reason is that the currencies of Euroland's major world-wide customers are also seeing their currencies rise relative to the dollar. As the current account deficits continue to rise and the US plans no austerity measures to curb foreign imports and increase exports, the situation may cause the US dollar to lose its position as a hegemonic currency replaced by either the euro or the euro and a basket of currencies.