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The Euro

In 1992 it was going to be called the ecu, after a coin struck with a shield on its face in 1270 by Louis IX of France. But the Germans didn’t like that, so the European Commission floated the florin, after the Florentine coin used in the 13th century, and the “as,” the most common coin in ancient Rome. But “as” meant something different in London than it did in Rome, and, after all, both were Italian. The Germans, loath to give up their mark, suggested adding a prefix to existing currencies, as in “That’ll be five euro-marks for the currywurst,” or “You owe me 1 trillion euro-drachmas!” Finally, in 1995 the heads of the EU states agreed on a word that neither inspired nor offended: euro.

Robert Kalina, an engraver at the Austrian National Bank, designed the bills with instructions from a working group at the European Monetary Institute, which would become the European Central Bank. (Example: Use buildings—but not real buildings, which might offend countries that didn’t have their own buildings on their bills.) At midnight on Jan. 1, 2002, ATMs in 12 countries began dispensing euros.

The project shows that the countries of Europe can reach a decision together, eventually. It also shows how important it is to Europeans that no one gets left out, no one looks too important, and no one gets exactly what they want.

Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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