- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

As the world economy teeters on the brink of what is now being called the first synchronized global downturn since the 1980s, the European Union is about to take a plunge that could either pull it back or push it over. The introduction of a common currency for 12 of the EU's 15 member countries is now only four months away.
The first to seize the opportunity of the biggest financial transaction of all time were transnational crime syndicates. A sizeable amount of their ill-gotten gains in recent years were kept liquid in a variety of national currencies. Banks might have questioned their provenance. To avoid embarrassing questions during the switchover to Euros, they moved these countless billions to the United States to be converted at a slight loss into dollars. European bankers concede privately this was one of the reasons for the dollar's sharp rise last spring and summer vis a vis European currencies. Europol, EU's criminal investigation unit, reckons much of this will flow back into Euros when the new currency is up and running at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, 2002.
International crime organizations are already busy counterfeiting Euros. Afghan crime bosses in Quetta and Pershawar, respectively the capitals of Pakistan's Baluchistan and Northwest provinces, produce the best dollar counterfeits. They use ultra sophisticated offset printing presses and $50,000 laser scanners-cum-color copying machines to churn out hard-to-detect fakes. They have fooled many experts. Recently these machines began running off Euros, too. Phony $100 bills are common currency in the "stans," the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan and Kazakhstan. Russians invariably pay cash for real estate in the choice watering spots of the world. Soon fake Euros will be flooding a wide variety of developing nations where they will be eagerly embraced.
Interpol, Europol and Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service believe the Euro will soon replace the dollar as the crime syndicates' currency of choice. The 500 Euro note ($460) — the new currency's highest denomination — will be Europe's most valuable bill, except for Germany's 1,000 mark note that is about to be retired. One million Euros will fit into a smaller case than the one needed to carry $1 million. Europol believes the big Euro bill will quickly displace the $100 note for transnational crime syndicates. Many of the criminal groups in the flesh trade — some 250,000 underage girls and young women are moved from the former Soviet republics, Eastern Europe and Asia to Western countries every year — prefer to cash-and-carry their profits than to transfer them electronically, which is subject to government snooping.
As Europeans turn in their marks, francs, pesetas, liras and drachmas for Euros, counterfeiters will have a field day as few besides banks will be able to spot the fakes.
Three years ago, organized crime managed to abscond with a two-pound package that contained the European Central Bank's secret weapon to combat the counterfeiters. It was a printing plate for embedding a top security hologram in the new Euro bills. Under heavy armed guard, it was put aboard an Air France flight from Paris to Munich. It disappeared en route. The hologram was redesigned.
The European Central Bank and Europol are fighting back and work closely together to feed information to the EU's international police agency's Counterfeit Euro Database.
The continuing transfer of new Euro bills and coins to the banking industry to be ready for the big swap is being guarded by the largest police and security deployment in history. Banks will then distribute Euros to retailers where individuals will be able to exchange their old bills without having to stand in line at a bank.
From Finland's Lapland at the Arctic Circle to Greece's Aegean islands, some 300 million Europeans will have to turn in their national currencies in exchange for Euros. Some $600 billion worth of Euros in cash, including bills in seven denominations and eight different Euro coins, is being moved by armored trucks, escorted by police vehicles; by trains protected by heavily armed paramilitaries riding shotgun on carriage rooftops; by military armored personnel carriers and warships. Stretched end to end, Euro bills would reach to the moon and back twice while the coins weigh the equivalent of 24 Eiffel towers.
Britain, Sweden and Denmark are not affected; they opted to stay out of the European Monetary Union while remaining members of EU.
The entire changeover operation will cost more than $40 billion. It will also most probably depress overall economic activity at a time when the world is anxiously waiting for a fillip to reverse the southward drift.
Most Europeans still do not know the Euro is an irreversible fact of life. About one-third of Europeans polled believe their national currencies will continue to be legal tender alongside the Euro. Seventy percent of Germans are against abandoning their sound-as-dollar mark. But the citizens of the 12 countries that have adopted the Euro were not consulted by referendum by their governors. Recent polls show 40 percent of Europeans unaware of the Jan. 1 deadline.
Denmark held a referendum and rejected the Euro. The 12 Euro currency nations decided that public opinions were far too fickle to risk any further delay in the great march toward a more perfect union. So they were not asked for an opinion. Nor were international crime syndicates. But they quickly understood they were getting a new lease on their black operations. The betting in Brussels is that 300 million Europeans will also learn to love the Euro.


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