The Blog

Whatever You Do, Don't Mention the Euro

There is nothing new in saying that if the Eurozone is to succeed its members will have to surrender more financial independence. Everyone knows that. Until they do, however, its future will remain uncertain and those who invest in it will be taking a gamble. So, for the time being "chips", I think, will have to do.

There is a good way to get your own back on American Immigration officials. Not the bright charming ones of course, who would want revenge on them? Rather the unhelpful McDonalds stuffed porkers who make you wait in endless lines on the basis that everyone wants to get into the US of A and that those lucky enough to do so should be prepared to suffer discomfort for the privilege. Anyway it works like this. Wait until they have approved your entry and then, as you go through, ask them with an expression of wide eyed curiosity:

"Oh, please could you tell me. What are the local chips here?" They will, of course, think that the question is about potatoes, such things being generally at the forefront of their minds, and reply :

"We call them fries here, Buddy." The accent George W: the timing Bob Hope.

"No, not that sort of chip. I mean coins and notes, what do you do for money?"

"Gee fella, haven't you heard of the US dollar?" You look blank.

"Dollah", you reply, savouring the word, the accent on the last syllable, "well that's a new one."

You walk away leaving the deflated official gasping like a landed trout, thus giving your youngest who is of a thesbian turn the cue to ask you in a piercing voice:

"Is this Disneyland, Daddy?"

"No, darling, but it's all similar," you reply.

You can see why you don't do this until they have stamped the papers.

It is all very well to take revenge on unhelpful individuals by mocking what their country holds dear but what do you do when in a country full of nice people who have a major embarrassment on their hands. Say, for example, that that symbol of European prestige, the euro, had been holed beneath the waterline by a wave of vacuous hubris, by unrealistic compromises which everyone knew wouldn't really work, by a Canute like disregard of the inevitability of the market; suppose even that nemesis was just around the corner. Unimaginable, of course. It could never happen but, just as an academic exercise, what then?

The etiquette books are unequivocal on the point. As a polite Englishman it is your duty to ignore the elephant in the room and not to mention the cause of embarrassment. On no account, therefore, must you use the word "euro" at all. Unfortunately that course of action has its difficulty because that is the currency with which you are going to have to buy your lunch. How then to refer to it without using the embarrassing word? It is a problem which from time to time arises in literature so perhaps it is there that we should look for a solution. If you have read Rider Haggard's book "She", and, if you haven't, then do so at once for it is a truly great yarn, you will recall that the Amahagger referred to Ayesha as "she who must be obeyed". If you have read Harry Potter, now you have read that, haven't you, you will know that Voldemort, the Dark Lord, is referred to as "you-know -who". Perhaps we can use the same technique to solve our conundrum. Perhaps we could refer to a Euro as "that which must be spent" and in view of the decline of the currency that is a name which contains much truth.

The trouble is that it is a bit unwieldy. Try saying "I will pay you six of those which must be spent together with fifty of the lesser ones which must also be spent in return for that cake" in French to a trader with a local accent and you will see the difficulty. All that training about "la plume de ma tante," although undoubtedly useful and interesting in itself, is hardly sufficient to prepare you for this. No, "chips", pronounced "shiips" to make it more euphonious to the Gallic ear, is a much better bet.

Some readers will be wondering if this is all going too far. Can they really be as sensitive as all that about a mere means of exchange? It depends where you are of course. In my case it is Luxembourg, a city at the very centre of the European project, a city whose international importance was underpinned throughout the middle ages by its staggeringly strong position and is now preserved through its equally powerful network of double tax treaties. It is the home city of the president of the European Commission. It is also a city which I first visited some 40 years ago and the first place where I actually slept under a bridge.

The bridge was a viaduct over the river Alzette which runs through the centre of the city and I slept on a meadow some way above the stream. I did not sleep alone. "Well, no, of course not," I hear you say "a charming young chap just after the end of the sixties. What do you expect?" but actually that isn't what I mean. In the same meadow as me and my travelling companion slept several hundred young people in various sorts of sleeping bag and bivouac. Travelling rough round Europe was fashionable at the time, rather as a gap year trip to build a school in Africa is now. It wasn't an ideal place to sleep because the slope of the meadow left you in constant danger of rolling into the river; also because sleeping there was illegal so that there was a danger of being arrested. This danger was more theoretical than real because at six in the morning a man walked round the meadow shaking the sleepers and telling us all to move up to the cafe at the railway station as the police would be arriving in an hour. So we all moved and had an excellent breakfast at the café.

At first I assumed that the man who had woken us was employed by the café but in fact that turned out not to be the case. He was a policemen, sent like John the Baptist before the main body, so that they would have no problems when they actually arrived. Neat, ingenious, administration by nudge and wink, a true credit to the authorities, but a precursor of what has gone wrong with the Euro.

Light touch administration is pleasant for the governed but it only works when everyone plays the game. The UK authorities discovered this after Big Bang when the raised eyebrow by the Governor of the Bank of England, which had controlled the old City, proved insufficient to regulate the much larger financial centre which took its place. Countries with separate finance ministries could, just about - the lack of a proper mechanism to subsidise the south would probably have got them in the end anyway, stagger along provided there was broad consensus. With the emergence of a government prepared to challenge that consensus the system begins to break down.

There is nothing new in saying that if the Eurozone is to succeed its members will have to surrender more financial independence. Everyone knows that. Until they do, however, its future will remain uncertain and those who invest in it will be taking a gamble. So, for the time being "chips", I think, will have to do.