Like numerous central banks around the globe, the European Central Bank (ECB) has started an investigation phase in view of the probable launch of a central bank digital currency (CBDC), the “digital euro”. This study (published in January 2023) explains what is at stake and how a digital euro could be designed as a safer, more inclusive and cost-free means of payment compared to current payment solutions, leading to a more resilient monetary system and more respect for individuals’ privacy.
The transformative potential of the digital euro will get lost if it is designed to be accessible and usable only through private intermediaries, as currently planned by the ECB. A public option is needed for the digital euro and this solution would be complementary to what the market can offer. This is not only desirable but also feasible to implement.
The main argument against the public option is that it could lead to massive deposits flights from commercial banks, with dire consequences for the universal banking model and the whole economy. That is why the ECB seems to discard any investigation that could lead to ground-breaking innovation. However, we claim these concerns are overstated.
The stakes are high but the policy debate about the digital euro is particularly difficult to grasp, as the issue often seems excessively technical. However, technical choices are not neutral: they will have crucial impacts on what the digital euro will and will not be able to perform in the future.
A digital euro could also improve international transfers and payments, especially benefiting people having cross-border life situations between a eurozone and a non-eurozone country.
Besides its payment functions, a digital euro will open possibilities for new policies that could be particularly useful to support the economy in times of slowdown or to accelerate the ecological transition.
Therefore, we need a broad political discussion about the objectives to be fulfilled by the digital euro, and a policy debate linking objectives to technical options before any commitment is made.
The ongoing investigation phase will be decisive: it should be focused on objectives and be more open to other stakeholders than the financial industry.