March 15, 1998
Europe, from E to U
Front page, big headline in today's Financial Times (read over some businessman's shoulder on the shuttle flight from Zurich to Geneva):
"Greece enters ERM in step toward Emu"
I couldn't read the subtitle of the article, but I think it said:
". . .and nobody has any idea what that means."
Greece is stepping toward an Emu? Is it a dangerous Emu? Is the Emu trapped in Eternally Revolving Motion? Has Greece's economy entered Emergency Room Mode, or are they talking about a Mania for the TV show E.R.?
Oh, wait, this is the Financial Times, not the New York Post. A front page headline in the FT is a little different than your basic tabloid. In truth, ERM means "Exchange Rate Mechanism," or something like that, meaning a policy of stabilization of currency fluctuations, and Emu refers to the coming European Monetary Union. It's all part of the new Era of the European Union (EU), which is being implemented by the European Commission (EC), and is leading to the introduction of a new region-wide currency, the Euro, that is denominated in European Currency Units (Ecu's), and has been debated Endlessly and Excruciatingly throughout the continent for what seems like Eons.
Can you imagine the type of person who would find the topic of Greece's entry into ERM so exciting as to warrant a big front page headline story? I'm not referring to the Greeks, mind you, to whom this might really be moderately interesting, since they'll have to change all their money and their basic way of life, except food (I don't think European integration requires all countries to eat, for example, Borscht). The Greeks have their own newspapers, published in -- they're notoriously self-centered -- Greek.
No, the FT is an English language international paper, published, as its motto says, "for the insufferably boring global businessman". I can almost picture a group of pinstripe suits standing around the water cooler, buzzing excitedly, "Did you hear that Greece is entering ERM?" "Yeah, that's a real step toward Emu, I'd say!"
Okay, well, I don't begrudge the Europeans their little experiment with continental integration. It's not really a new idea, of course -- it's been tried a few times in the past that I can recall, by people named Hitler, Napoleon, William the Conqueror, and Julius Caesar, among others. The main difference, aside from skipping the Genocide this time, seems to be that the EU has come up with all these neat acronyms to help popularize the concept of integration with the masses. Maybe if Caesar had called the Roman Empire something snappy like "REm" it would have lasted a few millennia longer (and it also could have sued the rock group REM for copyright infringement, lessening the tax burden).
Don't think that it's easy, by the way, to invent acronyms that can be pronounced by people in 15 different languages, without offending anyone. For example, consider some of the other terms that the EU planning committee test-marketed, and then rejected for one reason or another:
- For the community as a whole: the European Integrated Economy, or EURINE. They apparently couldn't make it five minutes into a press conference on the idea without being overwhelmed by snickering and giggles, especially from the French (who are exceptionally infantile). Then some joker shouted, "Will EURINE bring "pees" in our time?!" and the whole delegation spit up its coffee on the table, laughing. They don't like to talk about it nowadays.
- To be fair to less domineering members, the Exchange Rate Mechanism was first going to be known officially by its Finnish acronym, for "Raate do Eccsschaanje uf MŚkanyzm", which would have been "REM". But ah, the rock group got there first. ("Damn that lazy Caesar," Finns were heard to mutter.) Next they tried to give credit to the Spanish and Portuguese, but the SPERM merely launched a new round of childish jokes ("Greece entered what?? Wasn't it the other way around? Literally, in their case. . . haw, haw, haw!").
- Then there was the alternative name for the new currency that was briefly considered: the Financially Unified Currency of Europe, or FUC-EU. The poor Norwegian gentleman who first proposed this term kept getting punched in the face every time he suggested it to people from England and Ireland (twice, usually, by the Irish). Strangely enough, however, variations on the term have since become slogans of the British Tory opponents of EU membership.
What makes all of this new, Euro-centric terminology somewhat amusing is the little known historical fact that the name "Europe" itself was actually an accident.
You see, while Attila the Hun had been systematically marauding across Central Asia, it seems he developed a keen interest in croquet. He and his fellow barbarians would set up wickets on almost every new steppe they conquered, and they would play a couple of rounds before retiring to his tent to plan the next day's pillage.
It so happened that one day they crossed from the steppes into the more woodsy, wilderness terrain of what is now Hungary (which, by the way, got its own name when the local peasants approached his camp asking for food: "Who are these people?" Attila asked, and his Vice-Hun answered, "They say they're Hungry." "Oh," said Attila. "Kill them.").
Finding a clearing on high ground overlooking the new lands, they set up the day's game. Attila clubbed his ball through the wickets, then, while he was waiting for his next turn, surveyed the virgin landscape he was about to rape. "Where in the world are we, anyway?" he asked no one in particular.
Not paying attention, one of his croquet partners called over, intending to let Attila know that it was his turn again. "You're up!" he yelled. And the rest is history.
© 1998 David N. Townsend
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