February 18, 2010 / 5:24 PM / 9 years ago

FEATURE - Crisis, not Greece, makes euro hopefuls cautious

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Before the crisis, Helena Kubickova couldn’t wait until she could go to a bank machine in Prague and pull out euros, just like in Berlin or Paris.

Fired employees of Olympic Air stand in front of a banner, Athens February 18, 2010. While Germany and other euro zone big guns wrangle over how to make sure Athens does not sink the monetary union, euro hopefuls Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have their own problems. REUTERS/John Kolesidis

But the economic storm that pounded the European Union’s emerging newcomers and left shops like her haberdashery in the Czech capital struggling to draw business changed that.

Kubickova scoffs at fears among some euro zone states that Greece’s budget crisis could sink the single currency and believes the Czechs will eventually adopt the euro.

But she is among a growing number who now doubt the once-held wisdom that swapping zlotys, forints, lei and other national currencies is best done as quickly as possible.

“I used to be one of those who wanted to join as soon as possible, but now I think it would be better to wait,” said Kubickova, 56. “It’s because of the crisis, which we are still feeling, rather than anything to do with Greece.”

While Germany and other euro zone big guns wrangle over how to make sure Athens does not sink the monetary union, euro hopefuls Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have their own problems.

Following eye-watering economic contractions in all but Poland last year, most of their budget gaps have overshot the EU’s prescribed 3 percent of gross domestic product limit.

At the same time, they face wariness in EU institutions over another Greece-style blowup, as well as a lack of political consensus in some countries on the timing of entry and how to tackle the cost-cutting that will be needed to meet the rules.

The latest opinion poll by Eurobarometer, from September, showed the number of people supporting euro adoption “as soon as possible” fell to 25 percent, from 28 percent in May. Those who said “as late as possible” rose to 33 percent, from 29 percent.

The growing caution is palpable on the streets of Warsaw, Budapest and Sofia, although it is accompanied by an unshaken belief that the euro zone is not going to implode.

“It doesn’t matter how I feel, because we will have to join at some point anyway,” said Gabriel Stepanov, a 52-year old electrical engineer in Bucharest. “The situation in Greece will be solved. I have not lost my trust in the euro.”

CAUTION ABOUNDS

The crisis snuffed out a boom that saw some countries grow in double digits in 2007, leaving swathes of idle construction sites across the region and shops offering post-Christmas sales well into February.

While economic convergence helped the Czechs leap-frog euro laggard Portugal in living standards, consumers are smarting, especially in Latvia, which contracted by a fifth last year.

That has created caution on the euro front. Estonia still hopes to lead the current pack of aspirants and be allowed to enter next year. Neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, already in the euro’s ERM-2 waiting room, hope to join in 2014.

Bulgaria has retreated from a pledge by its new government to join as early as 2012, with Prime Minister Boiko Borisov citing resistance from euro zone leaders.

“There is no way to make it happen,” Borisov told national television. “Simply the fear, the stress, caused by Greece in the European Union... you cannot imagine how big it is.”

And, following a string of comments by Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Romanian policymakers, 2015 looks possible as an earliest adoption date for many aspirants, years later than envisioned when the entered the EU in two waves since 2004.

“We should deal with our problems, which means we should lower the budget deficit,” said Michal Zasadzki, a Polish business analyst. “I would join euro zone maybe not in two or three years but rather in five or six.”

FAVOURING FLEXIBILITY

A string of elections this year in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Latvia may complicate things.

They put the onus of painful and unpopular cost-cutting to meet the single currency’s requirements on governments that have no guarantee they will still be in power if adoption comes only five years from now.

That date also depends on whether public appetite for the euro is still be as strong in four years, because, although many appreciate the euro can bring stability, they baulk at the prospects of more uncertainty after a painful crisis.

“It makes me worry,” said Vidas Poskus, 33, a museum curator in Lithuania. “It can provide some impression of stability, though it is not a guarantee against crisis, as Greece shows.”

Although many in the EU’s emerging economies envy countries like Slovenia and Slovakia, which adopted the euro in 2007 and 2009, they also appreciate their flexible national currencies.

Take Hungary, where the forint lost 25 percent against the euro at the height of the crisis, wreaking havoc for consumers who had borrowed $34 billion in euro and Swiss-franc loans in the hope of repaying them with euro salaries.

But depreciation made exports cheaper and prevented even worse pain faced by countries with currencies pegged to the euro such as the Baltics and Bulgaria, which have to cut wages to regain a competitive edge.

That has led relief for people like 20-year-old student Laura Ispan, who once hoped Hungary would drop the forint.

“After the crisis, the country would have been in a much more vulnerable situation than now,” she said. “I think it is better for us not to have the euro for the time being.”

Additional reporting by Reuters Warsaw, Bucharest, Sofia, Budapest, Vilnius bureaux, editing by Paul Taylor

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