On a British banknote the Queen’s face looks out as a symbol that the country stands behind its currency. The Chief Cashier of the Bank of England signs a promise to “pay the bearer on demand the sum of ….”. On the other side our banknotes have pictures of well known figures from our country’s past. No-one can be in any doubt. Buy sterling, and you get a currency backed by the UK state. The state’s power to tax and to intervene in banking and currency affairs stands behind those pieces of paper.
When they came to design the Euro they had problems. There was no shared uncontentious history on which they could draw with figures and scenes from the past. There was no sovereign figure. There was no named Chief Cashier willing to sign the notes. They came up with something different.
On one side is a map of Europe, including non Euro countries as well as Euro countries, and including non members of the EU. So clearly whilst they wish to give the impression that Europe stands behind this currency, the detail lets down that idea. There are also drawings of stylised bridges. These are similar to styles of bridges in Europe, but are not meant to represent any particular place for fear of disputes about which should appear. On the other side are drawings of differing styles of European architecture, again without a specific building or place in mind. The twelve stars symbol of the EU appears on both sides. There is no symbol of the Euro area or ECB.
In one sense all this is relatively unimportant. In due course when they have completed their union more fully they may be able to reach agreement on popular symbols of it. They may unite around Charlemagne despite his often violent approach to human rights, or some other sufficiently distant person to be relatively uncontentious. More recent advocates of European unity prior to 1945 have gone about it in ways that still cause distress.
In another sense the symbols or lack of them sum up the key problem of the current Euro. No-one can be sure of who or what does stand behind it. When it came to Cyprus, the answer was the rest of the EU did not stand behind the Cypriot Euro if you held it in one of the wrong banks. The Euro countries are in the process of providing a better answer to this question. We need to know who stands behind the banks of the system? Who stands behind the member states borrowings? Does a Euro note have the backing of all Euro area taxpayers in the way a sterling note has the backing of the taxable capacity of the UK state?