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Another country is switching over to the euro currency tomorrow...

132 million individual banknotes have been brought in and euro coins have been minted.

Image: EMPICS Entertainment

ANOTHER COUNTRY IS signing up to the Euro currency and will be able to withdraw the notes from midnight tonight.

Lithuania is the last Baltic nation to adopt Europe’s single currency as it hopes to boost stability despite fears of inflation and eurozone debt woes.

Baltic leaders will withdraw their first euros from a Vilnius bank machine just after midnight, as the eurozone gains its 19th member and fireworks sign off a year marked by alarm over Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict and its economic crisis.

Minted

Lithuania brought in 132 million individual banknotes — standard across the bloc — from the German Bundesbank but minted its own euro coins.

They include the national coat of arms, a knight on horseback with sword and shield, which has appeared on the national currency since the 14th century.

The two currencies will circulate together for two weeks, while dual pricing will remain in shops until June.

The central bank warned residents to take out enough cash for New Year festivities in case of technical disruptions.

Welcome

The European Commission meanwhile draped a huge banner over its Brussels headquarters:

Welcome to the euro area, Lithuania!

For a nation scarred by decades of Soviet occupation, eurozone entry is an important step and symbol of “deeper economic and political integration with the West”, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a statement.

Lithuania Euro A woman passes by a poster reading The euro is coming to Lithuania soon in Vilnius. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Other countries once behind the Iron Curtain are now enjoying top positions in the European Union: former Polish premier Donald Tusk took over as president of the European Council in December, while Latvia assumes the rotating EU presidency 1 January

The three Baltics broke free from the Soviet Union in 1990-1991 before joining the EU and NATO in 2004. Estonia and Latvia became eurozone members in 2011 and 2014.

But in the run-up to the change from the litas to the euro, public support has wavered.

Support 

Just over 53% of the population of three million backed the euro and 39 percent were against, according to a November survey released by the central bank.

“I support the euro because it leads to greater integration into the EU and makes travelling in the EU easier,” said 26-year-old lawyer Karolis Turcinavicius.

But pensioner Danute Petkeviciene remained skeptical.

“The euro will not increase pensions or wages, it will only increase prices. But they have already decided,” she said.

Vilnius resident Teresa said she regretted losing a symbol of the country’s statehood.

“But it’s part of globalisation,” she added.

Political uncertainty 

Lithuania’s membership comes as political uncertainty in Greece is once again stoking fears that the eurozone’s debt crisis could flare up.

Vilnius has already committed hundreds of millions of euros to the eurozone’s rescue fund for struggling members.

“Financial commitments are a huge burden and increase the country’s debt. I think we should have delayed entry,” financial analyst Valdemaras Katkus told AFP.

The litas has actually been pegged to the euro since 2002, making it dependent on the European Central Bank. Vilnius had hoped to adopt the euro in 2007 but failed to meet the inflation criteria.

The global financial crisis put the goal on hold in 2009, when Lithuania suffered a deep recession.

Biting austerity measures far exceeding any applied in Western Europe turned the economy around, resulting in recent growth of around three percent.

But social security cuts and other slashed public spending also encouraged record emigration to richer European nations such as Britain.

Most analysts say eurozone entry will foster export growth and encourage investment.

“Government, businesses and households will benefit from lower borrowing costs,” said Vaiva Seckute, a senior economist at Swedbank Macro Research.

- © AFP, 2014

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