Euro banknote artist fears overhaul will reignite rivalries

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FRANKFURT – Twenty years after entering Europeans’ wallets, euro banknotes will be getting a facelift with public help, a process officials hope will bring citizens closer to the single currency.

But the Austrian artist behind the original banknotes fears the redesign could spark national rivalries, which he carefully tried to avoid with neutral illustrations the first time around.

Now retired, Robert Kalina was working as a graphic designer for the National Bank of Austria when he won a competition in 1996 to design the illustration of the very first euro banknotes.

“It’s amazing to think that the euro is already 20 years old, I hope it will be around for a long time,” he told AFP.

Kalina’s designs were originally printed on 14.5 billion banknotes in denominations ranging from five to 500 euros.

Banknotes in circulation have since almost doubled in volume and ended up in the hands of some 350 million Europeans and many more around the world.

A challenge

Euro coins, which are minted by members of the euro area, have a common image on one side and a country-specific image on the other. Ireland, for example, has opted for a harp, France for a tree.

But euro banknotes are issued by the European Central Bank, and their designs had to be identical throughout the euro area and avoid “national bias”.

The challenge for Kalina was to find illustrations that all Europeans could identify with, without arousing nationalistic sentiments or appearing to favor one eurozone nation over another.

“Portraits could have been allowed, but only if the faces were anonymous. I ruled out that option straight away, ”Kalina said.

He decides to devote himself to architecture.

Taking inspiration from existing buildings, Kalina simplified and reworked their representations with the help of engineering experts, to ensure that the structures “were no longer recognizable” but still believable.

His bridge designs, presenting different historical styles in Europe, symbolize the bond between the citizens of the euro area, “but also between the European Union and the rest of the world”.

The windows and doors on the other side of the banknotes represent “openness and a vision of the future”.

Despite the many crises that have rocked the currency since birth, Kalina says the ideals he sought to portray are “still valid”.

But earlier this month, the ECB said the bills were ready for a facelift, announcing a design and consultation process with a decision expected in 2024.


“After 20 years, it is time to review the appearance of our banknotes to make them more accessible to Europeans of all ages and from all walks of life,” said ECB President Christine Lagarde.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay,” she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in tune with other central banks around the world.

The ECB will rely on a 19-person expert panel to design the banknotes – one for each eurozone country – and consult with the public along the way.

“The question is whether people have gone far enough to accept, for example, famous people being portrayed,” even though they are linked to a particular country, Kalina said.

“Could this possibly cause jealousy?” He asked, recalling the heated debates on the issue in the 1990s.

The music world might be a good place to seek inspiration for the next generation of notes, Kalina thought, because “great composers like Beethoven or Mozart cannot be reduced to one country.”

Music “is a language which does not require words and which anyone can understand,” he said.


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