The governing council of the European Central Bank (ECB) on Wednesday announced it will move ahead with a pilot project exploring the benefits and risks of introducing a digital version of the euro.
"Our work aims to ensure that in the digital age citizens and firms continue to have access to the safest form of money, central bank money," ECB President Christine Lagarde said in a statement following the decision.
A digital form of the currency used by the 19 countries in what is known as the eurozone could provide an alternative to third-party payment services and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Interest in cryptocurrencies has exploded in recent years. But central bankers fear the widespread use of foreign or unregulated currencies could destabilize the economy.
The project is pegged to last two years. During that time, the ECB aims to identify a possible design for the digital currency as well as the potential impact on Europe's economy.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz praised the decision, saying a digital euro was "essential" and offered "huge opportunities." Separately, a joint statement from the German and French finance ministries also welcomed the test phase.
The ECB has stressed that a digital euro would not replace the physical euro. Rather, it would be used alongside it as an additional form of online payment, providing for faster digital transactions that don't rely on powers outside the bloc.
China has been testing a digital version of the Chinese yuan since last year, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have gained growing institutional acceptance around the globe. Both of these developments, along with a decline in the use of cash, pose a threat to economic stability in Europe, some fear.
"Wide acceptance of a means of payment or store of value not denominated in euro could weaken or even impair the transmission of monetary policy in the euro area," the ECB wrote in its "Report on a digital euro" released in October 2020.
"In such circumstances, issuance of a digital euro could support European sovereignty and stability, in particular in the monetary and financial dimensions," it said.
Over three quarters of German companies with more than 50 employees support the move to introduce a a digital euro, according to a representative survey by Bitkom, an association of German companies in the digital economy. Concerns about the rise of a foreign or private digital currency were the main reason for supporting the move.
A tall order
The pilot phase will help determine what a digital euro and its supporting infrastructure could look like. The investigation will rely on focus groups, prototyping and other tools.
"You really have to look into all the technicalities, the design, how you make sure that the banking sector is really part of the story," Lagarde said in an interview with Bloomberg in the days ahead of the decision.
Determining how to integrate a digital offering into the existing financial system will be a key aim of the test phase.
"A digital euro could hamper the activity of banks or generate instability in times of financial stress," Ulrich Bindseil, director general for market infrastructures and payments at the ECB, told DW in October. "But a properly designed digital euro can address these risks."
"That is really the big issue that the central banks are facing," agrees Markus Will, financial expert from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. "That they need to take the old banks with them which right now do not really have the ability or the technological components to cope with it."
A digital euro would also need to have the efficiency and anonymity of cash, no transaction fees and provide offline functionality in case of extreme events like cyberattacks or natural disasters, according to the ECB's digital euro report.
Like the physical euro, a digital version would be issued by Eurosystem — the ECB and the national banks of countries in the euro area. The ECB has stressed on its website that a digital euro would be distinct from crypto-assets, which have no public institution backing them and are prone to price volatility. A digital euro would be as stable as the physical euro.
Balancing security and privacy
The ECB president said that data privacy is a key concern that needs to be taken into account in developing a digital euro.
"At the same time," Lagarde told Bloomberg, "we need to make sure that it's not accelerating money laundering or the financing of terrorism."
The ability to exchange cryptocurrencies anonymously has made them popular with criminals. Another objective of the pilot project will be determining how to provide citizens with privacy without facilitating criminal activity.
Throughout the two-year exploratory phase, the ECB's governing council will rely on input from the European Commission, ministers of finance, and the parliaments of eurozone member states, among others, to determine whether to move ahead with this new form of currency.
"It's not a given yet," Lagarde said.