European businesses and citizens are getting their first taste of the new euro currency following a smooth handover of €144 billion in euro cash in the twelve participating EU member states on 1 January.
Production, storage and transport of the 15 billion euro banknotes and 51 billion coins involved constituted a logistical and technical operation on an unprecedented scale. Around €134 billion were frontloaded amounting to approximately 50 % of the national banknote circulation at the end of 2001.
The European Commission reports that distribution went smoothly with no major logistical incidents and the security arrangements proved satisfactory. Despite the massive increase in cash transport operations, there were no serious attacks on the cash carriers. Few incidents have been reported despite the large number of notes and coins stocked by banks and firms.
As expected the number of higher-denomination counterfeit national notes discovered in many participating countries was higher than usual, reports the EU, but the forgeries were generally of poor-quality and easy to detect. As far as the euro is concerned, no forged notes (or coins) have been found to date.
In Italy and France, a combination of bank strikes and tailbacks at motorway toll booths marred proceedings slightly, but throughout the rest of the EU, the change-over has progressed as planned.
The European Central Bank says the vast majority of automated teller machines (ATMs) started distributing euro banknotes from the very first minutes of 1 January. By the end of the day, more than 80% of ATMs in the euro area were dispensing the new notes, with a 100% record reported in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
In most countries, a high demand for euro banknotes was registered, with withdrawals from ATMs up to four times the average figure for 1 January. According to MasterCard, 740,280 credit and debit card payments were authorised across Europe, up 20% on the same day last year.
The ECB is urging consumers to avoid making mixed payments at retailer tills and to make active use of the euro coins contained in the almost 200 million starter kits sold since 14 December 2001.
In the UK, the largest national European economy opting out of the changeover, the arrival of the new notes and coins caused the pound to suffer its biggest fall in a month, slipping one per cent against the euro to £0.671 in early trading. Anti-euro activists carried a coffin to the Bank of England bearing the message: "Death of 12 nation states - killed by euro", and protesters in black armbands leafletted City workers.