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Speech by Robert J. Coleman, Director General, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate, European Commission - "The Euro Made Easy: the role of the ngos", 26 February 2000, Charlemagne Building, 1049 Brussels

1. Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am glad to be able to address this audience today as we have only a limited number of opportunities to assemble in Brussels representatives from citizens organisations from all Member States, including consumer associations.

The introduction of the Euro is a formidable European challenge. Every consumer in the Euro zone will be affected and so will those from abroad visiting the Euro zone or about to join it. But we should not drift towards the rendez vous in a fatalist spirit.

From our point of view, the challenge consists in allowing everyone to take advantage to the maximum of the new currency and avoid as much as possible the difficulties of the inevitable transition period.

You have heard it many times today: the introduction of the Euro is an unprecedented phenomenon. All coins and notes, scales of value and price references will be changing for more than 290 million consumers over a few weeks. A new monetary authority, the ECB and European System of Central Banks, is already now in charge of the monetary policy. But soon for the first time in the European adventure, we will be asking each citizen and consumer to participate directly in the Euro project by embracing a major change in their daily activities as consumers.

2. Summary of the interventions of the day:

a- What does the Euro involve in terms of preparation?

We have heard today of the need to carefully prepare the next phase of introduction of the Euro from the point of view of consumers, and to do this before the end of 2001.

Currently, only some forerunners have started to practice making payments in Euro or to memorise Euro prices.

As from 1st January 2002 we will all, in the Euro zone, start receiving coins and notes in Euros from our employers, from the cash distributors and the shopkeepers. The few coins and notes still available in national denominations will quickly disappear.

Several difficulties may confront everybody in coping with such a payment revolution. This is not merely the abstract conclusion of the European civil servants (who already have problems to get used to their salary and missions paid in Euro). It is the result of the work carried out over several months by specialists in the fields of sociology, psychology, economy and also by working groups of elderly, economically excluded, visually impaired and hard of hearing in different countries of the European Union.

These are the specialists, either because of their professional expertise or because of their direct knowledge of their own needs and legitimate requirements.

They have explained to us that preparing the Euro involves three key elements:

- first, explaining the practicalities of the transition to the Euro, of course: answering questions like when will we have the coins and notes in Euros? what do they look like? how can I pay now in Euros?...)

- second, preparing for the Euro also requires giving meaning to the Euro project: a consumer informed about the main reasons for and objectives of the European currency may be pro or against the Euro, but will be much better prepared or willing to learn and accept the change than someone who just sees the change as an arbitrary decision imposed by some distant European authority.

- Finally, the greatest challenge consumers face is to understand and be able to use, the new scales of value and reference prices: if I have 10000 Euros, am I rich? If I am asked to pay 9 Euros for a bottle of milk, is it reasonable?

As has often been said, using a new currency is like learning a new language: you do not really feel comfortable speaking that language as long as you are not capable of speaking it without consciously translating from your mother tongue or using a dictionary to understand it.

People will not feel comfortable with the Euro as long as they do not succeed in thinking in Euros without converting the amount into their old currency. Everyone remembers the example of the French still counting in old French francs.

In the case of the Euro the new values and price references will also be difficult to learn, as the conversion rates are not easy for most of the countries (for example 166, 386 for Spain, 1936.27 for Italy, 0.787564 for Ireland).

At present, most people have received some basic information on the practical aspects of the Euro but very little on the general context of the project or little training on the new scales of value and price references. Some of them also tend to forget the basic information because of lack of practice.

Such conclusions are to a greater or lesser degree valid for all the countries involved. Therefore, the ways of dealing with any problem should be basically similar from one country to the next even if some adaptations will be necessary at local level.

Furthermore, these preparations need to be foreseen in advance to allow people to be ready as from 1 st January 2002 when they will be forced to practice the Euro. The preparation of 290 million consumers to practice the Euro can not be done in a couple of weeks, as you cannot learn a new language in a couple of weeks.

b- Learning the Euro might be particularly difficult for those categories of population with difficulties of access to the information (elderly, economically excluded, people with disabilities).

One of the main objectives of the conference today was also to underline that the traditional means of information (brochures, newspapers, TV and radio programmes...) might not be enough to allow preparation of large categories of the population who have particular difficulties of access to information.

Included in these categories are those who are excluded from the normal flows of information either due to social or economic marginalisation, or due to a particular disability (illiteracy, hearing, visual, or mental disability).

The Euro adventure can only be a total success if we are prepared to help all categories of citizens to prepare adequately for the new currency.

This does not mean that any visually impaired person or any elderly person will automatically have more difficulty to adapt to the Euro than anyone else:

The studies in the field have proved that the difficulties and concerns of these populations are in terms of content the same as the public in general, even if sometimes, their particular situation of exclusion or difficulty makes them fear any change even more intensely.

What is true is that these categories of the population might need special attention in terms of the channels and format of the information: the socially excluded need accessible information from sources close to them, the visually impaired need information in a special format and specific training for the recognition of the coins and notes, the mentally impaired need information adapted to their disability...

Experience proves furthermore that any effort made for these categories of population may well be of value to the "general public" who can also benefit from accessible information close at hand.

c-The means to get to these categories of population (information of proximity)

How to best prepare for such a challenge?

The answer is simple and complicated at the same time: we need to use all means available and share the results of all actions to avoid duplication of effort.

Poximity is the key word.

Proximity means not only that the information has to be adapted in terms of content and format but also that it should be transmitted by those who have been called today: trainers or "confidence mediators", that is, people already benefiting from the confidence of such persons and in the best position to transmit the information (consumer or citizen associations, social workers, voluntary workers from the concerned populations...)

In terms of content it is important to be able to share the results of the different projects because, as we already said, the fundamental problem with a new currency is universal even if the material must be adapted at local level.

In terms of geographical and social proximity, the role of the trainers or confidence mediators will be essential. We need to take advantage of the year 2000 to start preparing, with your help, a network of mediators who can reach during 2001 as many people as possible and in the most efficient way.

d- Distribution of competencies among Commission, Member States and Civil Society.

Because of this need for proximity, the European Commission indeed considers that information on the Euro is to a great extent a matter of subsidiarity. That is why the bulk of the European funds devoted to Euro information are delegated to Member States authorities to be distributed at national level.

As recently underlined in its Communication "2002: Nothing but the Euro: communication strategy in the last phases of the Completion of the Euro", the Commission wishes nevertheless to continue in a role of promotion and co-ordination of Member States' practices. This involves, on the one hand, producing its own information material and promoting cross border pilot projects like the Euro Made Easy and making the results available to all interested parties.

On the other hand, it involves facilitating the exchange of good practices among national projects and particularly the co-ordination of the national campaigns on the Euro.

But because of the need for proximity, the most important role will have to be played by local and regional authorities, as well as by associations like yours who have a structure already present in the field to contact the population.

This is not only a question of whether your association decides to take an initiative and adopt a Euro active policy. Whether you take the initiative or not, you will very often be confronted with questions on the Euro by your members or the public with whom you are in contact. It is advisable to be prepared to answer their expectations.

It is also important to underline that it is not possible to leave the responsibility of the information of the visually impaired solely to the associations specifically dealing with this type of disability, or to leave the information of the elderly as a responsibility of the organisations specialised in contacting them.

The involvement must be much wider and "cross- category": A consumer association might be in contact with a visually impaired person and in a good position to inform him, the Red Cross might come along to a socially excluded person and therefore be useful in informing him or guiding him to the right information centre.

e-The actions which could be set up at the level of NGOs

Speakers today have given us some ideas on how an NGO could use its structure to collaborate in the Euro information process.

A first step should be to analyse in which way the existing structure could be used and some categories of personnel trained to be able to transmit Euro information to the public with whom they are in contact.

For these purposes, your organisations can put in place an ad hoc training facility or benefit from the experience in training of other associations already working in the Euro field like the network of Euro Made Easy trainers which will be established this year.

The second step should be to select the most interesting information material and look for means of reproducing it.

Of course every association will only be able to organise such an action according to its financial means and the staff already available or from resources funded by national or regional authorities.

But the participants have underlined that a lot could be done with little money just by re-directing some of the regular training initiatives or the time of voluntary workers, and by sometimes just photocopying and distributing some already existing material.

f-The training and information tools the Commission puts at their disposal.

As you have heard today, a wide range of tested training materials created by the most vulnerable populations through the Euro Made Easy projects is at your disposal free of rights to be reproduced and eventually adapted. This material is being translated into all languages. You might also find some other useful material in your Member States or in other European organisations.

We have been informed also today that some organisations have already put in place methodologies to train confidence mediators within these same Euro Made Easy projects.

We encourage you to take advantage of all that which is available and start the next phase already this year, namely, preparing the people and the material to be used in the training of the population during 2001.

3. Conclusion:

a- Call for mobilisation of the NGOs as from 2000.

May I conclude that the actions of your organisations this year will be essential for a proper preparation of the consumers in 2001, allowing for a smooth transition to the Euro in 2002.

This call for co-operation is not only addressed to the specialised organisations already involved in the information of special categories of the population, but also to all the non governmental organisations representing the citizens in general and which could play a fundamental role in the preparation of the final changeover.

b-Commission and Member States offer all help available

We have presented to you today the work done up to now by the Commission, material and analysis, which is at your disposal. Many other valuable initiatives have taken place in Europe which you may well be able to use in your particular environment.

All of those present today remain at your disposal for further information. Please contact those responsible closest to you and help us make the Euro adventure a success in terms of European citizenship.

4. Acknowledgements

It is time now to thank you for your attention through the whole conference.

A special thank you for the speakers and for their active involvement as well as for the interpreters, and those in charge of the technical organisation who have made our multilingual meeting possible today.

For those coming from abroad I wish you a nice trip back if you are travelling home today or a pleasant stay in Brussels if you decided to take advantage of this Saturday conference to visit the city.

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