Design of Europe's Banknotes Panned as 'Funny Money'

The proposed banknote design of Europe's single currency, the euro, has done more to unite the Continent than many policy decisions in recent past. From London to Athens, the cry is: "Yuck!"

While there are those who like the design, and others who don't care, the critics of the new currency's looks are especially vocal.

The new notes, which will hit the streets by Jan. 1, 2002, have "the look of something makeshift prepared in a hurry by an ex-people's republic struggling to rid its currency of the iconography of Stalinism," says London-based design critic Deyan Sudjic.

One source of criticism is the tiny space allocated to a national symbol of choice. For the British, the tiny space on the back of the bills would be occupied by a picture of Queen Elizabeth II. The problem is that her picture is lost among the bridges, windows, gateways, maps, and other features the designers have used for their main decoration. The unveiling of the notes has literally added substance to the debate about a single European currency which, in Britain, is especially acute.

All British banknotes, as well as stamps, prominently feature the queen's head.

The queen herself is said by Buckingham Palace sources to be "still studying" the new euro banknotes unveiled at the European Union summit in Dublin this month. The same sources are indicating that Her Majesty is "not amused," and Prime Minister John Major has pledged to try to put matters right.

Reflecting the mainly negative British response to the new currency, Mr. Major said he was "not any more enthusiastic or keen about it than I am about the name, the euro." Major, under pressure from "Euroskeptics" to declare himself against a single European currency, has been quoted as saying privately that it "ought to be called 'the dodo,' " the same name as an ungainly and flightless bird, now extinct.

This same lack of enthusiasm for the brightly colored notes that come in seven denominations ranging from five euros to 500 has been echoed across Europe. Several EU nations have had their pride dented as well.

In Greece, the local media were swift to notice that the designers had chopped off several Greek islands, such as Crete, in the southern Mediterranean. In Madrid, eyebrows shot up when people realized that Spain's Balearic Isles find no place on the notes.

Many in Helsinki were aghast to find that only half of Finland (an EU member) appeared on the notes, whereas large chunks of Russia were included.

In Germany, whose Chancellor Helmut Kohl, is a powerful advocate of a single currency, reaction to the euro notes has been generally good. The mass circulation Bild newspaper called the notes "beautiful, really European." But Munich's Abendzeitung greeted them with the headline "Yuck!"

And at the Dublin summit, Italy's Prime Minister Romano Prodi called the currency "a mess."

Alexandre Lamfalussy, president of the European Monetary Institute, the body responsible for producing the money, has said a lot of thought went into designing the notes. Windows and gateways, he explained, "symbolize the spirit of openness and cooperation of the European Union."

But why, quite apart from the small space allotted to the British monarch, are there no images of people on the banknotes?

The answer to that question has been supplied by Guido Crapanzano, who was a member of the EU committee that selected the designs. Dr. Crapanzano told the Milan newspaper Corriera della Sera that the committee could not agree on famous Europeans to be given starring roles on the currency.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was proposed by his native Austria, but the objection was raised that the great composer had written Masonic music. Leonardo da Vinci was disqualified, said Crapanzano, because "it was feared that the old tale about his homosexuality might be dragged up."

Why not William Shakespeare? He was a nonstarter because his negative portrayal of Shylock, a Jew, in "The Merchant of Venice" raised the issue of anti-Semitism.

"In the end," Crapanzano said, "we did a calculation: The banknotes were seven, while the member-countries were 15. By choosing a personality for each one, we would have put the nose out of joint of the remaining eight countries."

His comments were grist to Britain's Euroskeptic mill. Dubbing the euro "funny money," London's Daily Telegraph editorialized: "There is such a thing as a European culture, but its political expression is not robust enough to subsume distinctive national characteristics."

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