- in Rome –
Money is not about the banknotes. After all, the once-mighty American greenback is among the least attractive notes anywhere, lacking even the creativity to employ different colours. In Canada, new notes are being unveiled this year, a splendid combination of high-tech polymer gadgetry and Canadian history, notable for example in the appearance of the Vimy Memorial on the new $20 bill.
The euro was always going to be a singular currency in that regard. How to design a series of notes that reflected something of a pan-European history? That would have required a real act of imagination, but the fathers of the euro opted instead for fantasy, issuing banknotes which inhabit a make-believe land. The circulating bills are only 10 years old and, as the euro itself crashes into reality, the notes are an apt metaphor for a fantastical project.
When the new euro notes entered circulation in 2002, they were instantly unrecognizable. That was by design. It was decided the notes would feature bridges, arches, gateways and windows — all images of the encounter between diverse peoples. Which bridges and arches were selected from a continent rich in historic examples of both? In an early indication that hard choices would not be made, it was decided that stylized bridges and arches would be drawn, not depictions of actual ones. It was easier that way, of course — not choosing one national landmark, while leaving aside another. It is always easier to live in a fantasy world not subject to the concrete details of the real one. And so the euro was born with its fantasy notes. In one nod to reality, the name of the currency appears in both Latin script and Greek, the ancient alphabets of Europe.
That was about the only nod to reality regarding the Greeks. It’s amusing now to talk to the central bankers and finance ministers who made the decisions regarding Greece joining the euro. Everyone now remembers how they sounded cautions or were opposed. Those whose endorsement cannot be denied now say that the Greeks were dishonest, and entered by fudging the books. Perhaps the Greeks saw the banknote design and submitted fake numbers to match the fake images.
None of the problems facing the eurozone are wholly unexpected. A single currency, aspiring to the solidity of the deutschemark but without the accompanying fiscal discipline and productivity, was always something of a gauzy aspiration, rather like building sand castles — or bridges — in the sky.
This year marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge here in Rome. The triumph of Constantine, under the mysterious Christian sign in the sky, was one of the most consequential moments in the history of Europe. Europe as a cultural and historical project is the meeting of biblical faith, Roman law and Greek philosophy. Each of those traditions has hard lessons to teach about the truth of man and society, truths sturdy enough to sustain a millennia-old civilization. The euro was a rather different project. Cultural confidence or simple truth in accounting had very little to do with it. It addressed not the concrete messiness of history, but the desire for a shiny new future drawn up just as it was desired to be. And if there were no actual bridges to cross over the troubled waters, no matter. The euro would simply pretend that they were there.
The pretending was not sufficient for even a generation. Italy’s public finances are in such a mess that democracy has been suspended here, with the government being given over to “technical” experts — unelected and in no hurry to call elections. Not that democracy is in high esteem at the moment, as the view along the Mediterranean toward the post-election fiasco in Greece confirms.
It appears the poor Greeks will soon face the worst possible outcome. After two years of severe austerity and social turmoil to remain in the euro, they will leave the single currency and return to a devalued drachma and a major reduction in their standard of living. Once Greece takes its leave, how will other countries be persuaded to endure painful austerity today in order to supposedly avoid what will happen next year anyway?
Canadians can remember notes that featured such hard realities as a Sarnia oil refinery, and such powerful national symbols as the RCMP musical ride. Feeling rather good about our currency this year, and looking forward to freshly designed notes, we should be thankful for having already learned the lesson being painfully taught in Europe today: A currency can be an act of imagination, but not a flight from reality.
A single currency was always something of a gauzy aspiration, rather like building bridges in the sky.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP Photo