Paying by euro in Antarctica!

report by Heike O’Sullivan

The 1st January 2017 marked the 15th anniversary of the launch of the euro. It was a bit of a non-event and I, too, was only reminded of it when a friend’s teenage son interrupted our conversation by asking, “What’s a Punt?” Occasions like this, as when today’s youngsters laugh at the picture of a floppy disk, the huge bricks that were the 1980s mobile phones, or a rotary dial telephone, make me feel very ancient indeed.
Everyone will remember when the new euro notes and coins became legal tender on 1st January 2002. The currency changeover created a lot of work for many people: Shopkeepers needed to display dual pricing for all items; a myriad of machines had to be upgraded, from tills to parking meters to vending machines. Every household was issued with a small pocket calculator programmed to easily convert from Punt to euro and back.
Much hype was created as to how difficult the changeover would be when in fact the Irish in particular took to the new currency like a duck to water. A Eurobarometer survey revealed that by April 2002, 42% of Irish people thought about prices in the new currency, compared with only 17% across the other Eurozone member states.
Mentioning the Eurozone, I was surprised to learn that the euro is the world’s second most traded currency after the US dollar. I hadn’t realised that the euro is also used outside of the EU, not just in 19 EU member states. The former Yugoslavian countries of Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as the microstates of Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City and Andorra use the euro as their sole currency. Further afield, some overseas territories in the West Indies and off Newfoundland have adopted the euro, as has the French-claimed sector of Antarctica although I’m not sure that there are any shops there.
Perhaps with view to the euro’s 15th anniversary, the European Commission had a new Eurobarometer survey carried out in October 2016 which was published last month. I was surprised at some of the results, given the outspoken criticism of all EU related things in this country in the last few years. For instance, Ireland topped the table when asked if the euro is a good thing for their own country, with 81% of respondents agreeing, this figure up 6% from 2015. The Eurozone average is 56%.
85% of Irish interviewees thought that the euro has made travelling easier and cheaper, again leading the table compared with the Eurozone average of only 47%. Indeed, the trend for answers by the other Eurozone countries since 2015 is decidedly downward, with a whopping 13 out of 19 countries saying it’s become more expensive.
The discontent obvious throughout the EU in recent months, is mirrored in some of the Eurobarometer poll findings: 92% of Eurozone states said their health systems need reform (Ireland is table topper with 97%), 91% labour market, 89% pension and education systems, 87% social security system, 79% taxation. 76% believe that governments need to save more today to prepare public finances for the aging population (Ireland 90%). When asked if the retirement age should be raised to ensure sustainability of the pension system, Ireland again topped the table at 44% of respondents answering ‘totally agree’. The Eurozone average is 27%.
Anyway, all in all, the Irish seem quite happy with the euro as their currency and as a member state of the Eurozone. However, as much as you all like your euro, are you quite sure that you haven’t any old Punt notes hidden away anywhere? As late as last year, the Central Bank of Ireland reported that there is still around €230 million (circa IR£180 million) in “old money” that hasn’t been returned. No doubt, much of this may have been lost in the wash, or gone abroad in a tourist’s purse, or buried in the garden by a secretive person who has since passed away. The Central Bank said though that every year, old notes and coins are found in the most clichéd of places: in stud partitions, under floor boards, in attics, hidden between pages of books or stuffed into vases.
Perhaps Irish businesses could succeed where the banks have not by copying some of the marketing schemes thought up by some large German retail chains: The fashion retailer C&A never stopped accepting the Deutschmark as legal tender. Since introduction of the euro in 2002, German C&A customers have spent more than 50 million Deutschmark (circa €25 million) in the country’s more than 500 branches, perhaps knowing that C&A will ask no questions as to the provenance of the bank notes.
Similarly, in October 2015, German department store chain Karstadt celebrated its 25th anniversary by accepting Deutschmark in exchange for store vouchers. In January 2016, German grocery giant Kaufland’s more than 640 branches ran a promotion during which they accepted the old German currency, with enormous success.
One does not need to take advantage of the nostalgia many Europeans may still feel for their old currencies. Perhaps it would suffice to facilitate those who still own old Irish currency and don’t want to go through the trouble of exchanging notes at the Central Bank. In the traditionally lean business months of January and February, put your famed Irish imagination to work – you never know what you might come up with. There’s €230 odd million out there for the taking…