Since 1 January 2002, Belgium has been using a common currency now shared by eighteen other countries: the euro. The historical event marked by that date is an integral part of the history of European integration. It is thanks to the will of a few forward-looking statesmen from different countries with visions of peace and unity that the idea of a European Union could be taken forward to actually become a reality and ultimately lead to the single currency. In this month’s “Spotlight”, we take a closer look at Belgian figureheads who have played key roles – to a greater or lesser extent – in both the process of European integration and the establishment of the euro.
Now regarded as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Paul-Henri Spaak would enable a giant leap forward in the unification of Europe. As the Old Continent was ravaged by the Second World War, the then Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Paul-Henri Spaak had already come out in favour of a customs union between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. But it wasn’t until 5 September 1944 that an agreement was actually signed and the Benelux was born. Throughout his career, Paul-Henri Spaak worked incessantly towards the goal of European unification. Renowned for his qualities as a speaker and his great powers of persuasion, he was selected at the 1955 Messina Conference to chair the committee that was to deliberate on setting up the European Common Market bringing together the Benelux countries, France, Germany and Italy. The Spaak Committee’s work served as a launchpad for the Treaty of Rome which marked the beginnings of European Economic Community. He was also the man who signed these Treaties establishing the European Communities on behalf of Belgium on 25 March 1957.
At the 1974 Paris Summit gathering the heads of State and government of the EEC countries, it was another Belgian politician, Leo Tindemans, who was prime minister at the time, who would be chosen to draw up a report seeking to define the concept of European Union. European cooperation, essentially economic in nature, had reached a turning point in its history. The Tindemans Report, published in 1975, is one of the most important Belgian contributions to the European ideal. This time, the emphasis was on the importance of political cooperation between the member countries. Even though such ideas did not catch on very much at the time, they are back at the forefront of debate today and especially since the economic and financial crisis of 2008.
In 1986, following adoption of the Single European Act, the need for a single currency was also beginning to be felt. Here, too, a Belgian was to play a key role. His name was Alexandre Lamfalussy. He fled his native Hungary at the age of 19 to escape from communist repression and came to Belgium to study at Leuven. Armed with a doctorate in Economics from the University of Oxford, he worked for more than 20 years at the Banque de Bruxelles. Between 1976 and 1986, he worked as an economic adviser at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the ‘‘central bankers’ central bank’’, before serving as its Director-General up to 1994. In this capacity, Alexandre Lamfalussy was able to take part in all the important debates on the future changes that would usher in market liberalisation and eventually a common currency. In 1988, he was invited to sit on the Committee chaired by Jacques Delors on Economic and Monetary Union. This Committee was made up of the governors of the central banks as well as four ‘independent’ experts, one of whom was Lamfalussy. The Delors Report published in 1989 explained the phases that would lead up to a full Economic and Monetary Union. The report was taken up in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which set out the different stages. The target date for launching the monetary union was set at 1 January 1999 and that for the single currency to become legal tender was fixed at 1 January 2002. This Treaty also created an institution that was destined for a very short life: the European Monetary Institute (EMI). Its objective was to pave the way for a new and much longer-term institution, the European Central Bank (ECB). The EMI opened its doors at the beginning of 1994 and started preparing in earnest for the arrival of the single currency. For its President, the governors of the different central banks were in broad agreement on the appointment of either Alexandre Lamfalussy or Wim Duisenberg, who were regarded as the best candidates for this post. But the Governor of the Dutch central bank turned down the job offer. So Lamfalussy had to set up two institutions in less than five years: first of all the EMI, which would give him the launching pad from which to create the ECB. He had to work around the pervading pessimism among the commercial banks, some of which still did not believe the single currency was a realistic prospect. The ECB was finally established on 1 June 1998 and it was Alexandre Lamfalussy again who was approached about the job of its first President. But at the ripe old age of 70, he turned down the offer, standing aside for Wim Duisenberg. Alexandre Lamfalussy, who died on 9 May 2015 (Europe Day, of all coincidences), would nevertheless live to see the arrival of the single currency, a decade and a half of its existence and he is now dubbed the ‘‘father of the euro’’.
More anecdotally speaking, another Belgian can also claim to be the ‘‘father of the euro’’ because he found the name. As of 1979, the ECU (European Currency Unit), a basket of European currencies, served as the European Community’s unit of account with an overriding objective of currency stability in Europe. ECU collector coins have been produced by a handful of EU Member States. But Belgium was the only one to have made its ECUs a legal means of payment in the country. Silver coins worth 5 ECUs and gold coins of 50 ECU were minted between 1987 and 1998, making Belgium the first country to use the European single currency. ECUs ceased to be legal tender in Belgium on 1 January 1999, making way for the euro. Why was the name ECU not kept for the European currency? Quite simply because it is not politically neutral as it was reminiscent of the écu, a former French currency. On 4 August 1995, Germain Pirlot, a Belgian teacher of Esperanto, French and History, sent a letter to the President of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, suggesting a name for the future single currency: the euro. Several months later, at the Madrid European Council on 15 and 16 December 1995, a decision was taken to replace the term ‘ECU’ with ‘euro’ without however explaining where the name came from. So, by a twist of fate, it was a teacher of Esperanto, a language that aspires to universal use, who would have succeeded in getting all the various countries involved to agree on the same name.
Once the name of the new currency had been chosen, one last decision was needed on what would be depicted on the common face of the euro coins. So, a competition was organised and it was won by another Belgian, Luc Luycx, a medal and coin engraveur working for the Royal Mint of Belgium. The decision was announced at the Amsterdam European Council on 13 June 1997. Luc Luycx put forward three different designs. The one- and two-euro coins show a border-free united Europe. The ten, twenty and fifty centimes depict Europe as an entity made up of separate states. And, lastly, the one, two and five centimes present a Europe as being part of the world. The national side of the coins portraying Belgium’s King was designed by Jan Alfons Keustermans (Albert II) and Luc Luycx (Philippe). So, the Belgians are the only ones in Europe who can pride themselves on having coins that are 100% Belgian.
- Paul-Henri Spaak, a European visionary and talented persuader , Official website of the European Union, consulted on 10 August 2015.
- La Belgique et la construction européenne , Website Vivre en Belgique, consulted on 10 August 2015.
- Lamfalussy Christophe, Maes Ivo and Péters Sabine, Alexandre Lamfalussy. The Wise Man of the Euro, Brussels, Lannoo Campus, 2013.
- Royal Decree of 26 November 1998 on the demonetisation of ECU-denominated coins, Moniteur belge/Belgisch Staatsblad of 01/12/1998, 38422-38423.
- Germain Pirlot “Uitvinder” van de euro , De Zeewacht, 16/02/2007, p. 18.
- Madrid European Council – 15 and 16 December 1995 – Presidency Conclusions , Website of the European Parliament, consulted on 10 August 2015.
- Heinonen Antti, The First Euros: The creation and issue of the first euro banknotes and the road to the Europa series , Suomen Pankki/European Central Bank, 2015.