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SAIS Review 25.2 (2005) 81-82

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Minting National Identity

Among Europe's historic efforts to build unity, cooperation and stability, few issues have been as prominent and emotive as the euro, the common currency adopted by 12 European Union members that went into use in 1999 but did not hit the streets in paper and coin form until 2002. Wrapped in issues of state sovereignty and history, the euro serves as concrete symbol of European harmony.

In order to depict symbolic harmony, the currency's bills depict fictional—yet somehow vaguely recognizable—buildings, bridges and doors, identified with no particular country but intended as expressions of pan-European unity. Likewise, one side of each euro coin is imprinted with one of three designs, common across all member states, that portray maps of Europe and 12 stars representing the currency's member states.

However, the flip side of the metaphorical coin is each country's pride in the symbols of its own history and identity. In recognition of the individuality of member nations, each E.U. member country chooses a design for display on the reverse side of the Euro coins. Consumers can use the coins interchangeably throughout the euro area.

The designs selected by individual member countries draw from a variety of specific ancient, medieval and modern sources. Greek coins borrow from a third century Spartan mosaic depicting Zeus, in the form of a bull, abducting Europa. Italian coins show a portrait of Dante Alighieri. The French selected a tree symbolizing life, continuity and growth, surrounded by the motto "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," while the German national side bears an eagle, the traditional symbol of German sovereignty.

In most cases, national governments commissioned artists to design their contributions, but in 2004, Estonia put the question to a popular vote. The government, which hopes to join the single currency in 2007, appointed an expert jury to select 10 sets of proposed coins from which Estonians could choose. The competing designs depicted Estonian national symbols such as the barn swallow, the cornflower, and the three lions of the Estonian national emblem. One proposed set of coins showed an artistic combination of various Estonian-language words, such as mother (ema), son (poeg), home (kodu), to be (olema), and to do (tegema).

Janno Toots, a spokesman for the Bank of Estonia, told Agence France Presse that the proposed designs included many more Estonian national features than current Estonian coins. He said that the Estonian "people don't want the Estonian identity to get lost in the [European Union]." With the [End Page 81] harmonization of laws, removal of borders and relinquishment of national currencies, the European Union has removed many of the standard trappings of national sovereignty; symbolic references, like the issue of the euro coins, have taken on even greater meaning.

In the end, Estonians chose an artistic depiction of the country's contour. "The silhouette of Estonia is memorable and something that is common to all of the people who live here," said Lembit Lohmus, the winning artist. "It's attractive and easy to remember."

More than 45,000 people (out of a population of 1.3 million) took part in the Estonian vote, with 27.6 percent selecting the winning design. The E.U. monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, praised Estonia for letting its people choose the design, the first time, to his knowledge, that any country used such a method.

In recent years, the European Union acquired a partner in its minting practices when the United States began issuing quarter-dollar coins particular to each of the country's 50 states. While state identity may not have the same meaning as Europe's nationalities, there are parallels: the U.S. quarters circulate freely throughout the country, have the same value, and come from the same handful of mints, but they still serve to remind users that the country has a great many constituent parts.

Enthusiasts of integration hope the euro will foster European unity. Nevertheless, some still lament the loss of their national currencies. When euro notes and coins came into use in 2002, the...


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