Background #YourEurope

Background to Currency

In the aftermath of the Second World War, European leaders sought a solution to five thousand years of Europeans killing Europeans. This solution was the long-term unification of Europeans. Not through economic or political control, but through creating structures and systems which would help people across the continent to identify as similar. In the new Europe of their vision, people would still be Portuguese and Polish, Belgians and British, but also “Europeans”. Still different, but still similar. A key part of this would be money. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), founded in 1951, and the European Economic Community (EEC) founded in 1958, laid the foundations for the European Union (EU) in 1993. In 1993 the EU decided to create a common currency which would help create a “European” identity.

The Euro currency came into public effect on 1st January 2002. It has two functions.

  1. The Euro currency is now used daily by 341 million people in the Eurozone
  2. The Euro currency is one of the most important symbols of “Europe”

This project aims to gather public ideas for how to update the designs of the Euro coins and banknotes, to better reflect what it means to be “European” today.

“Europe cannot be built without people who feel European”.
Jan Peter Balkenende, 2006
Former Dutch Prime Minister

How was the Currency Designed?

The current designs of Euro currency were chosen through a series of national competitions in the mid-1990s. Designs were submitted to an EU competition by professional graphic designers to reflect the ‘spirit of Europe’, and create symbols that would not privilege one country over others but would encourage people of different nationalities to identify as part of the same group. The competition was organised in 1994. The name “euro”, the € symbol, and the artistic designs were chosen by a committee of Heads of State in 1994.

  1. Coins
    While EU member-states can choose the design for the rear of coins, all Euro coins share the same front image – a map of the European continent, submitted to the competition by Belgian graphic designer Luc Lucyx.
  2. Banknotes
    The winning banknote designs were submitted to the competition by Austrian graphic designer Robert Kalina, who chose unreal architecture to give the impression that “Europe is everywhere”.

However, a series of opinion polls in 1996 revealed that many people were unhappy with the design:

  • 61% wanted currency with human faces
  • 79% felt the designs “missed something”
  • 49% felt it looked like “toy money”
  • 71% felt the designs “badly conveyed the idea of Europe”
  • 43% felt the currency is unattractive
  • New York Times journalist Fareed Zakaria called the banknotes “Money for Mars”, stating that they lack anything which accurately reflects what it means to be “European”

Despite these public perceptions, the currency designs have not changed. Apart from some stylistic changes to the coins in 2007 and a new security watermark on the banknotes in 2013, the current designs of Euro currency have not changed since 1994. This makes the Euro the oldest currency in the world which has not had a design change.

“There are no ideals, however exalted in nature, which can afford to do without a symbol”.
Memorandum from the Secretariat General of the Council of Europe
16 July 1951

Why Redesign?

The European Union is changing. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the EU was similar to the United Nations or the NATO alliance – people knew it existed, but they had limited contact with it and the EU didn’t dominate public discussions. But in recent years, various challenges to the EU have changed this. As a result of various political, economic, and social challenges, the EU has started transforming from a distant political project which most people didn’t think about much into an issue which sharply divides Europeans. Across the EU27, support for the EU has grown but politicians and parties which are hostile to the EU have also gained popularity. For tens of millions of people the EU has become either a symbol of progress and peace which must be defended, or a symbol of corruption and despotism which must be ended.

The EU is now a part of everyday life for more than 500 million people, and the fundamental questions at the heart of Europe is now being asked: What is “Europe”? Where is “Europe”? Who is “European”? And what does it mean to be a “European”?

Currency conveys an ideological message, and currency is fundamentally political. The designs of banknotes and coins express what it means to be a part of that society, and they advertise a society by displaying its architecture, its heroes, and important events and people who created that society. Banknotes and coins symbolise what it means to belong to that community. But do the EU’s symbols still do this? Did they ever? The question of what it means to be “European” is more important now than ever, and symbols are a very important part of this.

Europe is changing, and its symbols must change with it.