Recession-weary Italians catch nostalgia for lira

Wed Jan 15, 2014 9:18am EST
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By Naomi O'Leary

ROME (Reuters) - Twelve years since Italy introduced the euro, the national mint is still stamping Italian lire - and recession fatigue means nostalgia for the retired national currency is going strong.

For Italy, one of the world's biggest government debtors, the price of sharing a currency strengthened by economies like Germany's has been years of budget cuts, tax hikes and economic stagnation.

Now Italians are snapping up gold and silver reproductions of their old currency. Publisher Editalia, majority-owned by the Italian mint, says sales of its coin and commemorative book collections reached more than 25 million euros ($34 million) last year.

The lira may have brought double-digit inflation, but its frequent devaluations boosted Italy's exports - and meant the government could always repay its lira debts.

The success of Editalia's reproduction lira coins and illustrated books about their history reflects widespread nostalgia for a currency first used in 1861 and whose notes once featured sculptor Lorenzo Bernini, painter Caravaggio and inventor Guglielmo Marconi.

But it also reflects Italians' growing dismay - if accompanied by begrudging acceptance - at how the country has fared since it joined the euro. Though Italy's economic woes - high debt, low growth and an inefficient public sector - predate the euro's launch, many people feel betrayed by promises that sharing a European currency would boost their living standards.

Instead, Italy's economy is now smaller than it was when euro coins and notes first appeared in tills. Unemployment has risen, and the country is struggling to emerge from its worst recession since World War II.

Even so, only one in five Italians says they want to restore the lira, according to the latest survey by pollster Piepoli Institute. Levels of euroscepticism are much higher elsewhere in the currency bloc: in Latvia, which adopted the euro this month, polls showed opinion split down the middle.   Continued...

An employee of Editalia shows a gold mint of one Italian lira as part of a coin collection in Rome, January 14, 2014. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini