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Dutch To Lead Transition To Euro

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ After spending 776 years together it should be hard to say goodbye. But the down-to-earth Dutch expect the death of the guilder to be quick and unmourned.

The nation of 16 million will be the first to forever empty its wallets of the familiar coins and notes and replace them with euros. The changeover begins Jan. 1, and the government has opted for a four-week blitz transition _ the swiftest among the 12 countries embracing the historic currency switch.

``We're capable of doing it faster than any other member states, so we will,'' said Finance Ministry spokesman Raymond Salet. ``We are the only country that will do it in a month.''

While many European shops and businesses will continue to accept national currencies alongside the euro for up to two months, the guilder will become defunct on Jan. 28. After that, only banks will take in old bills and change.

Ireland will be next, losing its pound for good on Feb. 9. Virtually all other European countries will continue to accept the old currencies until the end of February.

To speed things along, the Dutch government is giving everyone aged 6 and over a free starter kit of the eight new coins, which add up to 3.88 euros, worth about $3.50.

The new currency is identical in all 12 countries, but each government gets to put a symbol of its choice on one side of the coins. In the Netherlands' case, it's Queen Beatrix.

Henny Hardy, a 76-year-old Amsterdam woman, was among the first to pick up her set at a post office this month, and smiled as she studied the glistening new coins, embossed with the face of her queen.

``We didn't have any say in the matter, but it's really very practical,'' she said.

The starter kits can also be bought, and millions of euros are already in circulation, but the real work still lies ahead and promises to be a logistical feat.

By Dec. 31, 1,000 vans will have delivered the bulk of 2.8 billion euro coins and 360 million notes to outlets across the country. Within two weeks, the Finance Ministry predicts, 90 percent of transactions will be in euros.

The Dutch government has spent $880 million on the new currency and businesses say additional costs will reach $4 billion.

The guilder _ which means ``golden'' _ dates back to 1325. In its modern incarnation its bank notes reflect the nation's identity: the painter Frans Hals, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a red-and-white lighthouse representing the Dutch seafaring tradition, a bright yellow sunflower redolent of Vincent van Gogh.

The euro bank notes, with their pictures of generic European bridges, are bland by comparison. But still, the Dutch seem unmoved. The general attitude seems to be, ``it's only money.''

The indifference is linked to traditions of tolerance, pragmatism and the free economy, says Rob Vos, a professor of finance and economic development at the Institute of Social Studies.

``There is not a lot of emotion around about the departure of the guilder,'' he said in an interview. ``I don't think many see it as the ultimate Dutch identity.''

The European Union states adopting the euro are: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain. Those staying out are Britain, Sweden and Denmark.
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