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E DAY arrives in Europe

(The following copyrighted item by Robert Aaron first appeared in The Toronto Star, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.)

At midnight tonight, the largest currency change in world history takes place as some 300 million Europeans bid farewell to the franc, mark, drachma, peseta, lira, gulden, schilling, markka and escudo. Starting tomorrow morning, everyone in 12 member nations of the European Union will start using euro notes and coins for cash transactions.

Although paper transactions in euros have been in use for some time, the New Year marks the first time Europeans will be forced to use euro coins and bank notes in their daily lives. Within a few months, billions of the old coins and bank notes in a dozen national currencies will be withdrawn.

Officially, there are 12 nations participating in the switch: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland (Eire), Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. For coin collectors, however, there are three more, since the tiny nation states of Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican have also adopted the new currency.

Three members of the European Union have opted out of the switch to euros - Denmark, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Here's a primer for coin collectors on what collectors need to know about the euro coins:

There are eight new euro coins: the one- and two-euro bimetallic coins (like Canada's $2 coin); and the smaller denominations of one, two, five, 10, 20 and 50 euro cents. The three smallest coins are copper-coloured, and the next three are nickel-coloured. The two-euro resembles our own toonie with a nickel rim and bronze center, while the one-euro has the colours reversed.

On foreign exchange markets, the euro is worth about $1.41 Canadian (one Canadian dollar is about 71 euro cents). The currency's graphic symbol, €, looks like an E with two horizontal parallel lines across the middle.

Every euro coin from every country carries a common European side, chosen in a design competition which was limited to three themes - architectural, abstract, and European personalities. The winning designer was Luc Luycx, a 39-year old computer scientist at the Royal Belgian Mint. He won 24,000 euros for his effort. Lucyx created three designs focussed on the map of Europe - one for the one- and two-euros, another for the 10, 20, and 50-cent coins, and a third for the three small copper pieces.

The winning designs were the clear favourite in an opinion poll organized by the European Commission among the general public, the European Parliament, and a wide range of currency users including consumer organizations and representatives of visually impaired groups.

On the obverse of every coin, each member state has chosen its own motifs representing national themes. Finland, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain have produced three different designs, while Luxemburg's three designs differ only on the placement of the country's name. Austria, Greece and Italy have produced eight different designs, one for each value. The Netherlands has used only two designs, while Belgium and Ireland have used just one design for all eight of their coins.

In total, with each nation issuing twelve new coins into circulation, there will be a total of 96 new coin types in circulation tomorrow morning. A further 24 are being issued by Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican, although they are mainly collector issues.

In the bank note department, there are seven euro notes which do not differ from country to country. They are denominated in 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 and five euros, and carry generic designs symbolic of the continent's architectural heritage. Each note shows a bridge from a different era, symbolizing communication among the peoples of Europe and the rest of the world.

For coin collectors, each country will be issuing coin sets marking the official changeover. Watch this column every four weeks for information on the euro coin sets as they become available.

Click here for great photo's of each individual country's coins.

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