Twenty years after reaching European wallets, euro banknotes will get a new look with the help of the public, a process officials hope will make citizens feel closer to the single currency.
But the Austrian artist behind the original banknote fears the redesign could stir up national rivalries, something he painstakingly tried to avoid with neutral illustrations the first time around.
Now retired, Robert Kalina was working as a graphic designer at the Austrian National Bank when he won a competition in 1996 to create artwork for the first-ever euro banknote.
« It is unbelievable to think that the euro is already 20 years old, and I hope it will remain for a long time to come, » he said.
Kalina’s designs were initially printed on 14.5 billion banknotes in denominations ranging from five to 500 euros.
Since then, the amount of bills of exchange in circulation has almost doubled and found its way to about 350 million Europeans and many people around the world.
Euro coins, minted by euro members, have a common image on one side and a country-specific image on the other. Ireland for example chose the harp, and France for the tree.
But euro banknotes are issued by the European Central Bank, and their designs must be identical across the eurozone and avoid « national bias ».
Kalina’s challenge was to come up with illustrations that all Europeans could identify with, without stirring up nationalist sentiment or appearing to favor one eurozone country over another.
« Pictures might have been allowed, but only if the faces were unidentified, » Kalina said. « I immediately ruled that option out. »
He decided to focus on architecture.
Drawing on inspiration from the existing buildings, Mr. Kalina simplified and reframed their images with the help of engineering experts, to ensure that the structures were « no longer recognizable » but still believable.
His designs for bridges, displaying different historical styles in Europe, symbolize the relationship between the citizens of the Eurozone, « but also between the European Union and the rest of the world ».
The windows and doorways on the other side of the leaves symbolize « openness and a vision of the future. »
Despite the many crises that have rocked the coin since its birth, Kalina says the ideals he sought to portray « are still valid. »
But earlier this month, the European Central Bank said the bills were ready to be rolled out, announcing a design and consulting process with a decision expected in 2024.
“After 20 years, it is time to revise the appearance of our banknotes to make them more relevant to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” said Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank.
She said euro banknotes are « here to stay », although the European Central Bank is also considering creating a digital euro in line with other central banks around the world.
The European Central Bank will rely on a 19-person panel of experts to design the notes – one from each euro country – and consult with the public along the way.
« The question is whether people have gone far enough to accept, say, celebrity representation, » even if they are associated with a particular country, Kalina said.
« Could it cause jealousy? » He asked, recalling heated debates on the issue in the 1990s.
The world of music might be a good place to look for inspiration for the next generation of musical notes, said Mr. Kalina, as « Great composers like Beethoven or Mozart cannot be reduced to one country. »
Music is « a language that does not require words and that everyone can understand, » he said.
« Spécialiste de la télévision sans vergogne. Pionnier des zombies inconditionnels. Résolveur de problèmes d’une humilité exaspérante. »