LEADING ARTICLE: Cashing in on a symbol for Europe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Banknotes matter. It is not just the way they feel, crisp from the cashpoint like a new lease of life; it is also the way they look. They are symbols of national identity and history that we carry around in our pockets. So, if the European monetary project is to have any cultural currency, then the planned euro needs to capture a symbol which makes sense to the people who will use the notes and coins.

The competition to design the euro banknote, due to be launched by the European Monetary Institute (forerunner for a European central bank), is more than a test of the skills of graphic artists. It is a test of whether the euro will ever resonate with the people who will use it.

Sadly, the EMI seems to be approaching the competition in the most boring way possible, by asking central banks to send in their entries. Instead, it should be opening up the competition to young people and artists, to schools and colleges. The traditional approaches to banknote design will lead nowhere. Who would want Jacques Santer's head on the pieces of paper they handle each day? A cheering picture of President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Helmut Kohl embracing would inflame opposition. Even historical candidates - Napoleon would be an obvious candidate but so, too, would Julius Caesar - would be too divisive.

In general, though, we should steer clear of politics as simultaneously divisive and dull. We could look to figures from popular culture. Names such as Eric Cantona, John Galliano, Richard Branson and the Princess of Wales could be British nominations, for instance. But even that would be rather predictable. If the euro is to capture the imagination, then it must break some of the rules of traditional banknote design and do something new. Under the draft contest rules, the winning design will be based on a common European theme picturing buildings, animals, trains or cars.

That produces a wide range of opportunities for cultural symbols of which all Europeans can feel proud, everything from a classic Ferrari to Concorde, paintings by Cezanne or Monet, the Eiffel Tower to the Sagarda Familia in Barcelona, the view from the top of Scafell Pike or a painting of Mont Blanc. Once we leave behind politics and turn to culture, we might be able to find more unity and inspiration than we thought.

All this ignores the problem of language, however. There also has to be a common language on the notes that will be acceptable to every member nation, and which will not demand a new printing every time another country joins. And the answer, of course, is Latin.