Europeans stick by euro despite crisis

AP News
Posted: Nov 24, 2011 6:26 AM
Europeans stick by euro despite crisis

European voters are in a "throw the bums out" mood, ejecting nine governments since the debt crisis began, but no matter how down they feel about their leaders and economies, one thing they don't reject is the euro itself.

The existence of the nearly 13-year-old euro, used by over 330 million people in 17 countries, has come into doubt recently as European governments failed to prevent the financial crisis from widening from Greece to Italy and even France. The French and German leaders' shock admission this month that Greece might leave the euro only added to those concerns.

But ordinary Europeans, skeptical of the shared currency back in 1999, now profess widespread allegiance to the banknotes and coins whose designs vary from country to country but whose value doesn't.

Their attachment stems partly from an appreciation for the economic benefits it has brought, and partly from fear of what would unfold were the eurozone to break up.

Business owner Franck Choisne, a distiller in the Loire Valley, says he wouldn't want to go back to using the French franc even if Europe's financial crisis continues to worsen.

He had expanded foreign sales of his high-end liqueurs from his century-old distillery in sleepy Saumur, France since the euro came into use in 1999. He credits some of this success to the way the common currency has made life easier for entrepreneurs like himself.

"I remember how hard it was to invoice in different currencies" before the euro, Choisne said. "It's much easier now to deal with other European countries."

Beyond small businesses, the euro has made travel easier, eliminating the need to change marks, lira or drachmas. It has also boosted cross-border shopping, with more Europeans able to hop over frontiers to make purchases and save money. The euro has also provided European spenders and savers an increased sense of stability in their money, compared to the days when the value of their francs, schillings and escudos swung wildly.

Madrid salesman Francisco Gabanes, 42, summed up the majority Spanish view: "The euro has been good for Spain and I don't know of anyone that yearns to go back to how things were before its introduction."

Surveys show the strongest support for the euro in the very countries whose fiscal mismanagement or borrowing binges have led to the current crisis, and whose people are suffering the harshest austerity measures as a result.

In Greece, where spending cuts have been among the most painful and strikes and protests have become a near daily occurrence, two public opinion polls published this month estimated support for the euro at 78 and 81.1 percent.

In Ireland, which also had to be bailed out by its European neighbors and has had to slash pensions and salaries, 84 percent agree that having the euro has been good for Europe, according a recent EU survey. That's a higher percentage than in any other eurozone country.

And in struggling Italy, an AP-GfK poll conducted last week found that 76 percent of respondents want to stay in the eurozone even though the European Union is demanding tough economic reforms to boost confidence in the currency and the region.

Appreciation for the euro is matched by fear of the unknown effects that a splitting of the eurozone would have. When economic uncertainty is already rife, many Europeans understandably want to stick with what they know.

"I would be very frightened to leave the euro," said Lola Sanchez, an antique dealer in Madrid. "It would be like going backward and I don't think we can afford to do that."

If Greece or another eurozone member chose to abandon the euro or was ejected by its partners, the impact could be disastrous. Economists fear savers would rush to pull money out of their accounts, causing bank runs that could destabilize the entire banking system. Investors could start wagering on what country would be next to fall out of the eurozone, spreading the financial contagion in a domino effect spreading across the continent and sending shockwaves around the globe.

In the eurozone's core countries, France and Germany in particular, attitudes toward the euro are more nuanced but still positive overall.

A survey this month by French polling agency BVA showed 77 percent in favor of keeping the euro, compared to 21 percent against. Another poll this month by the Ifop public opinion takers showed 67 percent of the French want to keep the euro. That still leaves a perhaps surprisingly large 32 percent who'd like to go back to the franc.

Power plant technician Mikael Perniceni said he "wasn't sure" if the euro had made things better or worse for him. Perniceni, 31, lives near Thionville in northeastern France, near the border with both Luxembourg and Germany.

"If I had to choose I'd say I'm better off because I often cross the border to go shopping in Luxembourg, and not having to change money helps," Perniceni said.

The convenience of the euro is offset by pessimism over the currency's prospects, however. One of the polls that showed most French want to keep the euro also showed that more than half believe that European leaders' latest attempts to save the euro will fail.

Germans are more ambivalent still, with nearly half of respondents in a recent poll for television channel ARD saying Germany should not have introduced the euro. That is in line with data from an annual survey by Mannheim-based polling agency Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, which has consistently shown that more Germans think the euro's introduction has been "not good" than "good" and a steadily decreasing number of Germans who think the euro will be successful in the long run.

The EU's own surveys show that while a majority of Europeans think the euro has been good for Europe, few agree that the common currency has succeeded in one of its creators' most important goals: forging a common European identity by imposing a single currency on everyone from Helsinki to Seville.

Three-fourths of Europeans say the euro has had "no effect" on their identity, compared to only a fifth who say they feel "more European" because of the euro.

Euro optimists can point to EU surveys that have long shown solid majority of Europeans agree that the common currency has been good for Europe.

Whether they think it has been good for their own country, though, is another question. When an EU survey asked that question in its 2007 survey, less than half of Europeans agreed, and those who thought it had been bad for their country were in the majority in Italy, Portugal, Germany and Greece.

After that, the EU stopped asking the question.

In the eurozone's newest member, Estonia, voters remain satisfied overall with their government's decision to adopt the common currency this year.

There, too, though voters' approval of the euro is mixed with stoicism about the future.

Marju Koppel, 55, a clothes seller in the center of the Estonian capital Tallinn, noted that she'd seen three different currencies come and go in her lifetime _ the Soviet ruble, the Estonian kroon, and now the euro.

"Currencies come and go," Koppel said: "One just has to adjust."


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Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Harold Heckle in Madrid and Jari Tanner in Tallinn contributed to this report.