December 14, 1996

Common Currency, Uncommon Images


DUBLIN, Ireland -- "Is there space for the queen's head?"

It was the first question to be asked at the public unveiling of the Euro Friday, and it immediately highlighted the prickly sensitivities of persuading Europeans to trade in their marks, francs, pounds and guilders.

A British reporter insisted on knowing about the queen's head, in part because the British have been skeptical of the idea of the Euro in the first place and in part because many have been irked by the European Union's scrupulous effort to stamp out any hint of "national bias" on the new notes.

It did not seem to matter today that Britain was so skeptical about the Euro that it might not join a monetary union anyway, and designers of the new notes were quick to address the British concern.

Not to worry, responded Alexandre Lamfalussy, president of the European Monetary Institute, the precursor of a European central bank that devised the bills for the Euro. Yes, Lamfalussy said, the bills have no national symbols or even any hints of specific national identity.

The Euro will probably be the first Western currency that will not have any graven images of historic figures. Everybody, after all, has to come from some country -- which also means, of course, somebody else's country.

"Why aren't there any people" on the Euro bills? a reporter asked. "Is it because people weren't involved in developing the Euro?"

"People are difficult," Lamfalussy said. "People are personalities, and personalities always belong to a country -- even when they travel a lot."

Nor are there any words on the bills, except Euro, because the words would have to be in one language or another.

Indeed, just to be completely safe, the bills will not feature an image of anything that exists in the real world. The bills' images of sweeping bridges, windows and stone gateways are fictitious.

"The motifs cannot be attributed to any particular monument located in any single country," emphasized a press release from the institute. "Rather they are representative of features which can be found in many parts of Europe."

All of which gets back to the queen's head. In a bow to lingering national loyalties, Lamfalussy explained Friday that a small space had been reserved on one side of each bill. Individual countries, which will print Euros at the mints they now use for their own currencies, will be allowed to use this space for their own "national symbols." So, yes, there is room for the queen's head.

The bills unveiled Friday were the product of more than a year's work, which entailed a fierce competition between different designers. The designs were all vetted by a panel of experts -- not just currency experts, but marketing experts, artists, art historians and advertising gurus. The institute even sampled reactions from about 2,000 people.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company