A human face for the euro
11 January 2013
What has shades of grey, brown and green and folds up to fit in your pocket? The more unhappy or caustic among you may be tempted to reply: Mario Draghi’s latest gag. The new €5 note, presented on January 10, is remarkable in as much as it offers ordinary and wholly concrete evidence of the European authorities’ unshakeable faith in the future of the single currency. Could there be a more potent symbol for public opinion, national politicians and the markets than the introduction of a new banknote?
The President of the European Central Bank (ECB) preferred to emphasise the graphic novelty of the banknote: the presence of a human face, in this case, the face of the mythological figure of Europa from a Greek vase in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Until now, euro banknotes were illustrated with images of imaginary monuments inspired by the history of European architecture, from antiquity to the present day.
When the single currency was launched, European leaders, after a lot of thought, concluded that they should avoid having to choose real figures and monuments. How could they possibly decide between Goethe, Cervantes or Victor Hugo for the €500 or the €10 euro banknote? How could they justify using an image of the Coliseum and not the Acropolis (or vice-versa)? Anxious to refrain from upsetting national sensibilities, and careful to avoid anything that might make the artificial currency unpopular, they opted for note designs that featured stylised illustrations rather than depictions of existing monuments — even if it meant adding to the impersonal character of the euro.
More than 10 years after the introduction of euro notes and coins, this question appears to have been set aside. It seems that not even the eurozone crisis has been able to undermine the habitual relationship Europeans have with the currency that forms part of their daily lives. And now that new ground has been broken, we should encourage the ECB to take the initiative to go even further.
When the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize, many commentators including a number of political leaders remarked that the award was an acknowledgement of the Founding Fathers of the EU, which was every bit as important as the accolade offered to their current successors. So why not develop a range of notes to pay tribute to such figures as Rober Schuman, Jean Monnet, Altiero Spinnelli and Paul-Henri Spaak to name but a few? Some might object that they are not sufficiently well-known to the general public, and that they embody a technocratic vision of Europe. But having them feature on currency would be way of including them in a common framework of European historical and cultural references (even if the impact of such a measure would be limited to eurozone countries). In any case, it would certainly be a better alternative than a range of notes with illustrations of fictitious monuments that no one can visit.
Thereafter, there would be nothing to prevent us from introducing banknotes to remember the writers, painters and musicians, who gave such charm to our old national currencies. At last, the euro could finally become a currency with a human face.