Donald Clarke: Cash is dying, and who will mourn the euro banknote?

Think the current notes are bland? The new ones will be the work of an ‘advisory group’

Uh oh, we are set to get new euro banknotes. Still my pounding heart.

There is no greater supporter of the European experiment than this columnist. Each morning begins with bratwurst, paella, espresso and a jug of that rotten-fish thing food presenters always scowl at when they visit Scandinavia. I then bellow Ode to Joy at the cat while conducting an imaginary Berlin Philharmonic.

For all that, there is something heart-sinkingly bland about the symbols of the European Union. Sensible folk admire the simplicity of the starry flag, but just about the only time anyone gets emotional about it is when Europe is winning the Ryder Cup, and that's more to do with who we're beating – gleaming, evangelical manifestations of the American dedication to orthodontics – than any belief in a European golfing polity (not least because most of the players are now likely to hail from outside the EU).

Remember when the Mouse House changed the name of its first theme park on this continent from Euro Disney to Disneyland Paris? We will never hear quite why. But “Euro” suggests compromises over the ingredients in sausage housings and regulations about how much raw sewage is acceptable in drinking water. “Paris” suggests street cafes, poets in garrets and Edith Piaf. The alteration was indeed followed almost immediately by the park reporting its first quarterly profit. The horrible word “Europudding” has long been used to describe a film that, mucked about by too many squabbling financers from too many countries, ends up satisfying none of its intended audiences. And so on.


Aesthetic blandness

A few years after the Disneyland Paris shift, the EU confirmed that the common currency would indeed be called the euro. The subsequent banknotes broke new ground in aesthetic blandness. One might reasonably argue that such things are mere tools of commerce. How can it matter whether they are easy on the eye? Unlike the US equivalent, the bills are easily distinguishable from each other. They seem robust. The numbers are clearly printed. It’s not as if we have been using much cash over the past two years. What’s the problem? Well, whether we are talking about a hammer or a saucepan or a book cover, good design improves our lives and makes the daily toil that bit more pleasurable.

The first Irish notes I can remember were those from the beautiful “Series A” edition that passed through wallets from the 1920s right up until 1977. Lady Lavery was on one side. River gods were on the reverse. The fiver was so attractive you felt the thing itself might actually be worth £5. It was also an expression of national identity.

In contrast, the current euro notes look as if they were devised by the same people who assign seating plans at EU dinners. Everything is calculated to avoid offence. Obviously we can’t have people on these things. You can’t have Balzac without Goethe. You can’t have Napoleon without Bismarck. And that’s just the Franco-German rivalry. The decision to settle on architecture seemed less controversial, but the notion that we should see particular bridges – the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Pont de Neuilly in Paris were initially proposed – was quashed in favour of generic ages and styles. So the €10 is vaguely Romanesque and the €20 is off-the-peg Gothic. If you don’t care what banknotes look like then, well, you won’t care. If you do care you will feel dazzled when, coming from bland Euroland, you get your hands on 100 Aruban florins (a green iguana) or 50,000 Ugandan shillings (a yellow gorilla). Just look at Alan Turing on our neighbour’s new £50 note. Good luck getting a similarly important figure on the new euro.

Advisory group

The auguries are not promising. A report tells us that “a panel of experts from each member state would form an advisory group to come up with a new theme”. The aim is to make the notes “more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds”. This is how we got here in the first place. No great work of art or design emerged from an “advisory group”. Obviously, there are honourable aims here, but just about the only thing “relatable to Europeans” from all demographics is money itself. Not everyone likes Abba. Not everyone admires Dante. Even animal species (the odd rat or pigeon aside) tend not to spread evenly across the whole continent. I have no idea of the economics here, but the notion of each EU country having its own bills – just as each country has its own coins – sounds promising. But can we trust nations not to pick Glok the Appalling, who razed their neighbour’s capital in the fourth century, as the face of their €20 note? Almost certainly not. People are awful. We are stuck with the committee.

The best we can hope for is a brilliant piece of abstract design. We deserve something better. “Everybody needs money,” Danny DeVito says in David Mamet’s Heist. “That’s why they call it money.”