Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reluctant and Truculent

I crossed over from France to Spain at the weekend, walking the first leg of the Camino de Santiago through the Pyrenees from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. The guidebook told us there would be a simple stone sign telling us we had entered Spain from France. And there was, but it didn't mention Spain. Instead the stone sign - pictured - simply said Navarra/Nafarroa. We hadn't entered Spain, we had entered the autonomous community of Navarre, with the Spanish and Basque spellings there to remind us of its history and its neighbours.

I was surprised at first. Then it struck me that borders in Europe are fluid things, especially those involving mountain ranges and lines on maps. On both the Spanish and French sides of the border there are two and sometimes three languages on display in public spaces: reminding us again of differences and past disputes (often very bloody at that, according to the guidebook).

One thing all the different countries, regions and communities we crossed have in common is their currency: the euro. But the stone sign in the Pyrenees is a reminder of the power and continuity of differences rather than similarities. With countries like Finland openly discussing the idea of 'parallel currencies' - a new 'marrka' to operate alongside the euro - then we might begin to see money taking on some of the same characteristics as language in the eurozone. Something I've previously advocated we do in Ireland, by the way.

The ECB is taking note: they've just published a fascinating research paper on virtual currencies. This is wise because parallel currencies don't even have to be paper-based like in the past: they can run on smart cards, mobile phones and gaming platforms. The monetary mono-culture that is the eurozone will eventually go the way of other unions that tried to forge together the reluctant and the truculent. Unless we recognise the signposts: and allow for differences as well as similarities.

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