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How Europe Finally Happened

How much can children teach you about the new Europe now taking shape?

January 19, 2002

How much can children teach you about the new Europe now taking shape?

As somebody who had grown up in Germany before moving to Washington almost 20 years ago, I was thrilled to see that, among American kids, the euro has a novelty value. It was also easy enough to fulfill my son’s request. A colleague had just returned from Europe — and brought back some packages of the new euro coins to show around the office.

Why then was I so bewildered? You might say because I am “dated” material. Or rather, I should say that it was at that peculiar moment that I realized for the first time that I am getting older. Since childhood, whenever I thought about France, I associated the country with the French franc.

France is not an unfamiliar place to me. Our family regularly spends our summer vacations there, to link back to good ol’ Europe. But all the while, I have always considered France as an entity that was very distinct from Germany. For all my global mindedness, using “France” and the “euro” in the same breath struck me as strange.

I also still remember vividly the day when, as a recent high school graduate, I got to sit one late summer Sunday afternoon in the visitors’ section of the Council of Europe’s assembly hall in Strassbourg. That was in the mid-1970s — before there was an inkling of the European Parliament, which only started up in 1979.

At the time, I daydreamed in that empty, but symbol-laden hall about the prospects of a Europe moving closer together. But all that was really on the horizon at that time was sister city relationships — and perhaps exchanges of high-school students. No matter where you lived in Europe, your neighbors were so close — and yet, at the same time, seemed so far away.

A quarter century ago, during those youthful days of European daydreaming, the idea of bringing about something as practical as a common currency was not even a figment in the average person’s mind. True, while attending university, I later read about esoteric matters such as “optimum currency zones” and the like. But even within the confines of my academic life in the period, such a notion seemed far away.

And now it’s here at last — and I realize how much time has moved on. The new generation of European kids will not remember having different currencies. They may speak different languages, but, to them, the very idea of having national currencies will seem preposterous — and hopelessly antiquated.

And while one should not overrate the symbolic power of having a common currency, one should not underrate it either. At a minimum, the new, young Europeans will grow up in a world where money no longer divides them, but unites them. That is a very powerful step toward true integration.

Surely, Europe’s history will not proceed from here without any temporary setbacks. But to appreciate the momentousness of the euro’s arrival, one just needs to know some kids who grew up in East Germany before unification — and after.

For the younger ones, the memory of being fenced in simply does not exist. Against all the preceding darkness, theirs is an unencumbered mind. It is refreshing to observe the difference between them and the youngsters just a few years older. The latter are still encumbered with memories of living behind near-insurmountable walls.

Be that as it may, the mere fact that future generations of Europeans will think about their successes — and also their failures — on the basis of the very same currency unit is bound to bring out a comparative mindset that cannot help but to revitalize Europeans’ competitive spirits.

Against that happy backdrop, I felt it was okay for me to feel dated. In fact, after the momentary confusion, a feeling of happiness overcame me when I remembered that my son had asked me to bring him some euros for … his French class.