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Towards a single currency: a brief history of EMU

The euro is now part of everyday life in seventeen Member States of the European Union (EU). Other Member States will eventually adopt the euro. The single currency presents undeniable advantages: it lowers the costs of financial transactions, makes travel easier, strengthens the role of Europe at international level, etc. But how did the idea of a single currency come about?

The first appeal for a European currency prior to the 1929 crash

On 9 September 1929 the German politician Gustav Stresemann asked the League of Nations the following question "Where are the European currency and the European stamp that we need?” Six weeks later, on 25 October, the New York Stock Exchange experienced its "Black Friday": the international economic crisis began. It caused enormous economic upheaval internationally, business closures and an unprecedented level of unemployment.

The States responded to the crisis with a policy of "beggar-thy-neighbour", taking deflationary measures to boost export competitiveness and introducing tariff barriers for products imported from abroad. This policy made the economic crisis worse. While in the short term it was beneficial to the State concerned, in the long term it had serious economic consequences: inflation, falling demand, rising unemployment and slower growth in world trade.

The end of the Second World War: a new start

In 1944, while the Second World War was still laying waste to Europe, a conference on the restructuring of international financial and monetary relations took place at Bretton Woods in the United States. Over forty countries participated: on 22 July 1944 they signed the Bretton Woods Agreements. These agreements lay down rules and procedures governing the world economy. They led to the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (“BIRD”, which has now become part of the World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund. Furthermore, the Bretton Woods Agreements put in place the gold standard monetary system. This system provides stable exchange rates based on gold which becomes the reference standard. Only the US dollar is convertible into gold and the other currencies are indexed to the dollar.

The world underwent profound changes after the Second World War. The experiences of war gave rise to an awareness that international cooperation was crucial to avert further suffering. The United Nations (UN) was thus set up in 1945. In Europe, the first foundations for what would later become the European Union were laid by three Treaties bringing together six signatory States (Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands):

Creation of Economic and Monetary Union

At the summit in The Hague in December 1969, the Heads of State and Government defined a new objective of European integration: Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). A high-level group chaired by Pierre Werner, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, was thus given the task of drawing up a report on how this goal might be reached by 1980.

The Werner group submitted its final report in October 1970. It envisaged the achievement of full economic and monetary union within ten years according to a plan in several stages. The ultimate goal was to achieve full liberalisation of capital movements, the total convertibility of Member States’ currencies and the irrevocable fixing of exchange rates. The report therefore envisaged the adoption of a single European currency as a possible objective of the process, but did not yet regard it as a goal in itself. Furthermore, the report recommended that the coordination of economic policies be strengthened and guidelines for national budgetary policies drawn up.

In March 1971, although being unable to agree on some of the key recommendations of the report, the Six gave their approval in principle to the introduction of EMU in several stages. The first stage, involving the narrowing of currency fluctuation margins, was launched on an experimental basis and did not entail any commitment regarding the continuation of the process.

The collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the decision of the US Government to float the dollar in August 1971 produced a wave of instability on foreign exchanges which called into serious question the parities between the European currencies. The EMU project was brought to an abrupt halt.

In March 1972 the Six attempted to impart fresh momentum to monetary integration by creating the "snake in the tunnel": a mechanism for the managed floating of currencies (the "snake") within narrow margins of fluctuation against the dollar (the "tunnel"). Thrown off course by the oil crises, the weakness of the dollar and the differences in economic policy, the "snake" lost most of its members in less than two years and was finally reduced to a "mark" area comprising Germany, the Benelux countries and Denmark.

Creation of the European Monetary System (EMS)

Efforts to establish an area of monetary stability were renewed in March 1979, at the instigation of France and Germany, with the creation of the European Monetary System (EMS), based on the concept of fixed, but adjustable exchange rates. The currencies of all the Member States, except the United Kingdom, participated in the exchange-rate mechanism.

The principle was as follows: exchange rates were based on central rates against the ecu (“European Currency Unit”), the European unit of account, which was a weighted average of the participating currencies. A grid of bilateral rates was calculated on the basis of these central rates expressed in ecus, and currency fluctuations had to be contained within a margin of 2.25 % either side of the bilateral rates (with the exception of the Italian lira, which was allowed a margin of 6 %).

Over a ten-year period, the EMS did much to reduce exchange-rate variability: the flexibility of the system combined with the political resolve to bring about economic convergence, achieved sustainable currency stability.

With the adoption of the Single Market Programme in 1985, it became increasingly clear that the potential of the internal market could not be fully exploited as long as relatively high transaction costs linked to currency conversion and the uncertainties linked to exchange-rate fluctuations, however small, persisted. Moreover, many economists denounced what they called the "impossible triangle": free movement of capital, exchange-rate stability and independent monetary policies were incompatible in the long term.

Introduction of the EMU

In June 1988 the Hanover European Council set up a committee to study economic and monetary union under the chairmanship of Jacques Delors, the then President of the European Commission. The other members of the committee were the governors of the national central banks, who were therefore closely involved in drawing up the proposals.

The committee's report, submitted in April 1989, proposed to strengthen the introduction of the EMU in three stages. In particular, it stressed the need for better coordination of economic policies, rules covering national budget deficits, and a new, completely independent institution which would be responsible for the Union's monetary policy: the European Central Bank (ECB).

On the basis of the Delors report, the Madrid European Council decided in June 1989 to launch the first stage of EMU: full liberalisation of capital movements by 1 July 1990.

In December 1989 the Strasbourg European Council called for an intergovernmental conference that would identify what amendments needed to be made to the Treaty in order to achieve the EMU. The work of this intergovernmental conference led to the Treaty on European Union, which was formally adopted by the Heads of State and Government at the Maastricht European Council in December 1991 and signed on 7 February 1992.

The Treaty provides for the EMU to be introduced in three stages:

  • stage No 1: (from 1 July 1990 to 31 December 1993): the free movement of capital between Member States;
  • stage No 2: (from 1 January 1994 to 31 December 1998): convergence of Member States’ economic policies and strengthening of cooperation between Member States’ national central banks. The coordination of monetary policies was institutionalised by the establishment of the European Monetary Institute (EMI), whose task was to strengthen cooperation between the national central banks and to carry out the necessary preparations for the introduction of the single currency. The national central banks were to become independent during this stage;
  • stage No 3: (underway since 1 January 1999): the gradual introduction of the euro as the single currency of the Member States and the implementation of a common monetary policy under the aegis of the ECB. Transition to the third stage was subject to the achievement of a high degree of durable convergence measured against a number of criteria laid down by the Treaties. The budgetary rules were to become binding and a Member State not complying with them was likely to face penalties. A single monetary policy was introduced and entrusted to the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), made up of the national central banks and the ECB.

The first two stages of EMU have been completed. The third stage is currently underway. In principle, all EU Member States must join this final stage and therefore adopt the euro (Article 119 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU). However, some Member States have not yet fulfilled the convergence criteria. These Member States therefore benefit from a provisional derogation until they are able to join the third stage of EMU.

Furthermore, the United Kingdom and Denmark gave notification of their intention not to participate in the 3rd stage of EMU and therefore not to adopt the euro. These two States therefore have an exemption with regard to their participation in EMU. The exemption arrangements are detailed in the protocols relating to these two countries annexed to the founding Treaties of the EU. However, the United Kingdom and Denmark reserve the option to end their exemption and submit applications to join the 3rd phase of EMU.

Currently, 17 of the 27 Member States have joined the third stage of EMU and therefore have the euro as a single currency.

Last updated: 19.07.2011
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