Before leaving Tunisia the other week to take a short break in Barcelona, I needed to get some cash out of my bank account at BIAT, the Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie. As the Tunisian dinar is non-convertible, I asked for the money in the form of ‘hard’ currency. I was not thrilled when the guy at the counter told me that he could only give me euros – and all he had in the way of euros were 500-euro notes.
“Don’t worry,” he told me. “You can change it at any bank in Europe.”
That, however, was not my experience when I got to Barcelona, where the only bank that seemed willing to touch the gargantuan 500-euro note was the Banco de Espana on the corner of Placa de Catalunya and the Avenue Portal de l’Angel. Even then, there was a fair amount of form-filling, ID checking and hanging around to do before I got the thing broken down into something less unwieldy.
Why on earth is such a bill printed if most banks blanch at the sight of it? I get the impression that it was invented to keep the wheels moving in the lucrative financial sector that services the needs of drug barons, money launderers, international terrorists and super-rich tax fiddlers. An illicit fortune in 500-euro notes is a lot easier to conceal and carry around with you than, say, the equivalent sum in 20-pound notes. And surely it’s no coincidence that the only bank-bill in the world that’s higher in value is to be found in that nation of dodgy bank accounts, Switzerland, which has a 1000-Swiss-franc note.
As was observed in the following article, published in the Independent in May 2010 after Britain’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency managed to have the 500-euro note taken out of circulation in the UK, nine-tenths of those notes in Britain at the time were estimated to be used for criminal purposes: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/goodbye-to-the-note-of-illrepute-1972192.html.
Perhaps that’s why there are still 500-euro notes swirling around the financial institutions of Tunisia. In the days of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose in-laws the Trabelsi family ran Tunisia like a Mafia fiefdom, the 500-euro note was no doubt the ruling family’s currency of convenience. When the Tunisian revolution happened in early 2011 and the wretched clan had to scramble onto a plane bound for Saudi Arabia, I wonder how many 500-euro notes the ex-first lady Leila Trabelsi had stuffed down the back of her knickers.