LONDON — They are calling it the financial community's Desert Storm. Camp beds and food rations have been brought into bank command centers. Special subway trains and shuttle buses are running. Emergency crews are on standby.
To be sure, for many of these tens of thousands of euro soldiers, it's hotel rooms and gourmet catering. Still, the bankers and traders are working around the clock in 12-hour shifts on Britain's Wall Street to translate millions of prices and accounts into the new European currency before the first markets open Monday.
And this in a country that is not even going to use the euro.
The monumental operation--three years in the planning for Lloyds Bank and others--illustrates the predicament of many businesses in a handful of European countries: They're out, but they're in.
Britain, Sweden, Denmark and, reluctantly, Greece are not parties to the common currency being born today. But their financial companies, import-export firms and tourism enterprises--and many other businesses--must prepare almost as if they were based in the 11-member Euroland.
"Fifty percent of Britain's imports and exports are with Europe, so clearly U.K. businesses are going to be affected," said Colin Hemsley, Lloyds Bank's regional international business manager.
"We will be offering euro account services, euro currency checks, euro borrowing services. . . . We will be ready and able as a major bank for commercial purposes and as a leader in exchange markets," Hemsley said.
In the new euro jargon, the holdout countries are known as the euro skeptics. Britain, Sweden and Denmark have opted out of the euro for the time being. Greece wanted to join but did not meet the fiscal requirements to make the first wave.
Whether these countries join the euro at a later date will depend largely on the success or failure of the new currency. But many euro supporters argue that the new currency is unavoidable. It may be a virtual currency now--bills and coins will not be issued until 2002--but it is happening. So better to join sooner rather than later, they say.
Businesses outside the euro countries face higher interest rates--twice as high in Britain as in Euroland--and the risk of fluctuating exchange rates, which their Euroland competitors will not have to contend with.
Prices will be more transparent inside the euro countries, supporters say, so producers can seek the best deals from their suppliers. They also can try to sell to a larger European market.
But this is about much more than business.
A variety of political and economic reservations prompted the northern countries to wait. At the root of their decision is fear--fear of losing sovereignty and levers for controlling their own economies, fear that the new currency will be unstable, fear that diverse European countries, which cannot even agree on a common electrical plug, will not be able to pursue common economic policies.
Sovereignty is the most emotional issue for the euro skeptics. Money is a powerful national symbol. Britons are accustomed to seeing their queen on their pound notes, but the paper euros will be generic--no monarchs or other country symbols allowed.
Many Britons, Swedes and Danes see the euro as a step toward a federation of European states to which they do not wish to belong. They worry that they will lose the right to determine their own tax rates and laws governing the workweek and shop hours.
In short, they worry about their independence.
"I am clear about the economic advantages of European integration, but the political consequences have not been discussed," Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said at a November meeting of the Nordic Council, which groups together five Scandinavian countries.
Britons can be somewhat less diplomatic about what they see as the historical and cultural differences separating their country from others in the European Union. Half a century after World War II, there is still an underlying distrust here of Germany, which assumes its turn at the European Union presidency this month, and concern that a strong German-French axis will squeeze Britain out of important decision-making.
"The core countries were either brutal aggressors or collapsed ignominiously," asserted Roger Alford, a specialist in European monetary union at the London School of Economics. "Britain never collapsed before a brutal aggressor. In fact, we joined the winning side. We are different. We have a different set of traditions with clear and deep-seated laws and practices in business. So there it is."
The Sun tabloid, leading the anti-euro crusade in Britain, has given voice to these phobias in such recent covers as one featuring a picture of German Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine and the headline--written in German--"Is That the Most Dangerous Man in Europe?"