Archive for April, 2012

What the Euro in your pocket means

Don’t look. Can you say what’s on the 5, the 10 or the 50 Euro banknotes? Thought not.

On each, a bridge-and-window motif mumbles “linking” and “openness”. The European stars edge apologetically off the page. The map of Europe, with its blurred east and its southern shadow, can’t quite muster the energy to be controversial.

The design on the Euro notes has gone down in history as a massive defeat for Brussels—the generic flavourlessness proof that the peoples of Europe really don’t have anything in common.

From today’s perspective, of course, this blandness looks like a happy accident: if the banknotes had featured, say, Beethoven or the Brandenburg Gate, even the impoverished people of Greece might be tempted to set a light to them, along with the German flag.

And yet, no matter how bland the result, design is design, not accident. The committee that gave the Euro its look made some very deliberate choices.

For example, the committee made the decision to eschew not only recognisable figures—Europe’s da Vincis, Cervantes and Beethovens—but all figures full-stop. There aren’t even little stick-people on the bridges or in the windows. This marked a break with the entire tradition of European banknote design.

Moreover, the generic architecture they eventually adopted was not the design that had resonated most with the public during preliminary polling—that honour went to altogether more abstract and colourful patterns. The committee was prepared to defy public opinion in its choice.

What were they up to? Analyst Jacques Hymans suggests that Brussels’s political weakness had made committee sensitive to a fact which still escapes most central bankers in the member states: in an age of individualism, citizens dislike official interference in their sense of identity. The committee realised that it had to be subtle.

The choice of generic European architecture followed a straightforward logic of course. The notes were supposed to portray “anywhere Europe”. Citizens would see local examples of the kinds of architecture depicted on the notes and make the connection. What the prized local landmark lost in uniqueness as a result, it would make up for by being part of a European whole.

But this was more than just an attempt to loosen citizens’ ties with their local environment. The absence of human figures on the notes meant that the citizen was effectively the only person involved in this process. Citizens were being invited to place themselves at the centre of the European landscape and to forge their own personal connection with it.

This invitation to create an individually tailored European identity, one that would be added to every time the citizen travelled to a different Euro-member country, is precisely the kind of clever-clever post-modern idea one does not expect from the Brussels bureaucracy. And yet, it chimes exactly with the contemporary Brussels lifestyle.

Unlike the federalists who flocked to the institutions in decades past, few of today’s EU administrators actively identify with the Union’s official symbols, its flag or hymn. Their identity is based rather on their own very individual experience of Europe. It is about their ease at passing from one country to the next, about dipping into local culture.

Many officials talk of practicing a kind of ‘variable nationality’: they disguise just enough of their national, and adopt just enough of the local identity necessary to access bits of European culture usually open only to natives.

The USA saw a similar phenomenon during its own political and social consolidation. The sociologist Richard Peterson has called it “cosmopolitan omnivorism”: the emergence of an identity based on openness, the acceptance of variety and above all upon individual pick-‘n’-mix.

The Americans had tried to base their identity on narrow collective characteristics just like other countries of course, but their society was simply too fluid and heterogeneous. As a result, identity and social status were accrued not through exclusion, chauvinism and snobbery but rather through individuals’ openness to new things and their sheer capacity to consume variety.

This phenomenon is increasingly reflected in the EU’s own political agenda. Policies such as the “connecting Europe facility”, designed to improve transport and internet links between member countries, or the reduction of roaming charges on mobile telephony, aim to facilitate the large-scale, individual consumption of European variety.

The Euro notes may be bland, then, but they do express a very distinct philosophy. It is about the sense of personal empowerment that comes from loosening one’s national attachment. It is about being free to choose one of an infinity of potential European identities.

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