A Point of View: Making friends the shared currency way

  • 2 March 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Exchanging $100 bill
France once hoped for monetary union with the US and UK

Greece is falling out with its neighbours over their common currency - just as it did about a century ago. But forging closer bonds through shared currencies rarely works for long, says historian David Cannadine.

The continuing travails of the Greek economy and the threat they represent to European Monetary Union may both seem novel and unprecedented, but in several significant ways, we've been there before.

Far from being a recent innovation, there have been monetary unions for almost as long as there has been money. But across two and a half millennia, and whatever varied forms they may have taken, few of them have endured, which helps explain why they've been so easily and so largely forgotten.

On earlier occasions, too, the part played by Greece has been pivotal - sometimes positive but sometimes negative. And history has recently been repeating itself in other ways, for the present single currency is not the first such European scheme from which Britain has held aloof.

It's no exaggeration to say that European history is littered with the ruins of earlier endeavours. The most immediate predecessor to the EMU was the 19th Century Latin Monetary Union, which attempted to unify several European currencies at a time when most circulating coins were still made of gold or silver.

It came into being in August 1866; its initial members were France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, and they agreed that their national currencies should be standardised and interchangeable. There was no shared, single legal tender, but the currencies of the member countries were pegged at a fixed rate with each other.

Two years later, the four founding nations were joined by Spain and Greece and in 1889 the union was further enlarged by admitting Romania, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Serbia and San Marino. Thus the enlarged Latin Monetary Union lasted until World War I, which abruptly brought to an end the global financial system based on the gold standard. The result was that the LMU effectively came to an end in 1914, although it lingered on as a legal entity until its formal dissolution in 1927.

Negotiations to bring such a union into being had started in 1865, and Britain had initially been part of them. But two proposals were made, which proved to be a major stumbling block: the first was that the UK must reduce the amount of gold in its sovereigns, albeit by only a tiny amount, to make one pound sterling the exact equivalent of 25 French francs.

The second was that Britain must give up shillings and pence and decimalise its coinage to bring it into line with the other European currencies. Neither of these proposals was deemed acceptable, and so then, as in 1999, Britain stayed out, and left the continentals to their own devices. It also showed no interest in another and even more grandiose scheme floated by the French in 1867, for what was termed a "universal currency", which would have been based on equivalent gold coins to be issued by France, Britain and the United States.

Here were signs and portents aplenty of recent British attitudes and behaviour.

As Walter Bagehot, the essayist and editor of The Economist, put it in the late 1860s, there seemed to be a real danger that, "Before long, all Europe, save England, will have one money, and England will be left outstanding with another money."

If this happened, Bagehot went on, "We shall, to use the vulgar expression, 'be left out in the cold'. If we could adopt this coinage ourselves without material inconvenience, I confess I, for one, should urge our doing so."

Walter Bagehot
Walter Bagehot feared Britain and its currency would be frozen out

But Bagehot believed that the practical difficulties of such a step were "simply insurmountable". He feared more generally that "the attempt to found a universal money is not possible now", and the unhappy fate of the Latin Monetary Union would later bear him out. Yet with the establishment of the late 20th Century European Monetary Union, it did seem as if the state of affairs, which Bagehot one day envisaged - and feared - had come very close to realisation.

But in 2001, Greece joined the European Monetary Union, and the rest, as they say, is history - but a history that is not yet anything like being over.

Ever since it gained its hard-fought independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, Greece has been plagued by recurrent budget crises, frequent state defaults and long periods during which it's effectively been cut off from the international capital markets.

So while it was one of the earliest nations to join the Latin Monetary Union, its membership soon became more a cause of concern than celebration, for its chronically weak economy meant successive Greek governments responded by decreasing the amount of gold in their coins, thereby debasing their currency in relation to those of other nations in the union and in violation of the original agreement.

So irresponsible and unacceptable did Greece's behaviour become that it was formally expelled from the Latin Monetary Union in 1908. As a result, some effort was made to readjust the nation's monetary policy and Greece was readmitted to the Union two years later. But by then, the whole enterprise was increasingly fragile, its future looked increasingly uncertain, and the outbreak of WWI was only four years off.

The Latin Monetary Union was not the only one of its kind in Europe during the 19th Century. A German monetary union was created in 1857, which replaced the many different currencies of the many different German states with a dual system based on the north German thaler and the south German gulden. It proved to be a rare success story among such ventures, surviving until German unification in 1870, when political union was effectively aligned with monetary union and five years later the two separate currencies were replaced by the mark.

Less successful was the Scandinavian Monetary Union, established between Denmark and Sweden in 1873, which was joined by Norway two years later. The aim was to do for Scandinavia what the Latin Monetary Union was attempting more broadly for Europe as a whole but it, too, effectively ceased to function on the outbreak of WWI and it was formally brought to an end in 1924.

Such efforts to create common currencies during the 19th and 20th Centuries are only the most recent examples of a process that's been going on for almost as long as coinage itself has existed. It's an intriguing historical irony that among the pioneers of these endeavours seem to have been none other than the ancient Greeks.

One of the earliest examples of such a union occurred sometime about 400BC, along the western coast of Asia Minor, where seven Greek states allied themselves and produced a coinage that directly foreshadowed later European monetary unions. On the front of the coins was a common design of the baby Heracles strangling a snake, and the first three letters of the Greek word for alliance. On the reverse, each state placed its own particular image. All these coins were minted to the same weight and formed a unified currency, which was the tangible symbol of the seven members' economic alliance.

World War I trenches
WWI ended an earlier attempt at European monetary union

No-one quite knows why or when this early effort at a monetary union collapsed but 200 years later, the ancient Greeks had another try, organised through what was known as the Achaean League, an alliance of territories and city states covering the whole of the Peloponnese that had been formed about 280BC.

Once again, their shared currency had a common obverse design,in this case the head of Zeus, and reverse patterns that were specific to the individual issuing authority.

The result, according to the historian Polybius, was that the Greeks "had not only formed an allied and friendly community but they have the same laws, weights, measures and coinage, as well as the same officials, council and courts of justice". Here was a level of integration, which the most ardent and ambitious Eurocrat of today might envy and this may help explain why, unlike the Latin or the Scandinavian monetary unions, the Achaean League lasted for well over 100 years.

Its eventual dissolution, in 146BC, was not because the members of the league fell out with each other, over the currency or anything else but was the result of an external shock in the form of a crushing military defeat by the Romans at the Battle of Corinth. Which leaves us with the following paradox: the ancient Greeks were pioneers of monetary unions and were quite eager to keep them in being.

Modern Greece, by contrast, has been a threat and a danger to any monetary union that it has ever joined.