A short critical assessment of the ECB survey on new themes for euro banknotes

Commentary on the press release

From July 10 to August 31, the European Central Bank is organizing a “Survey on new themes for euro banknotes”.1

Everybody in the euro area can answer the survey. However, “In addition, to ensure opinions from across the euro area are equally represented, the ECB has contracted an independent research company to ask a representative sample of people in the euro area the same questions as those in its own survey.”2 Judging from the low coverage of this survey in the French and English-language press, the ECB didn’t make much of an effort to promote the public consultation, and it seems to have more confidence in the work of the research firm. This remark does not absolve the media, which, I believe, should better cover a subject that concerns images manipulated daily by all European citizens. Only people who love birds, one of the themes proposed by the ECB, seem to be engaged.

The ECB’s Governing Council has shortlisted seven themes taking into account “the suggestions made by a multidisciplinary advisory group, with members from all euro area countries”.3

  • Birds: free, resilient, inspiring
  • European culture
  • European values mirrored in nature. At first glance, this expression may elicit a smile, but in fact, as the text of the press release makes clear, the theme is one of respect for nature and preservation of the environment.4
  • The future is yours. The glib newspeak of the ECB’s press release is particularly incomprehensible here : “The images created for this theme represent the bearers of the collective imagination through which people will create this shared future.”
  • Hands: together we build Europe
  • Our Europe, ourselves. Again this theme seems to borrow its language from a personal development’s advertisement : “We grow up as individuals but also as part of a community, through our relationships with one another. We have our own stories and identities, but we also share a common identity as Europeans. This theme evokes the freedom, values and openness of people in Europe.”
  • Rivers: the waters of life in Europe

The “themes” of birds and hands seem to me to be more graphic or iconographic suggestions than real grounds for a discussion about Europe. As will be seen below, all of the themes are explained a little more clearly in the course of the survey itself. The ECB fails to explain in detail how the results of this public survey will be used, which is neither transparent5 nor encouraging to potential respondents: “The outcome of the surveys will be used by the ECB to select the theme for the next generation of banknotes by 2024.” Furthermore, there is no commitment to publish the public survey results. How will we know the number of responses received and the details of the opinions expressed?

A graphic design competition will be organized on the chosen theme, and Europeans will again be consulted on the results of the design competition.

The ECB won’t make a final decision on the new banknotes until 2026. Does this mean they will be issued in 2030 or 2032 for the euro’s 30th anniversary?

The survey

I answered the survey questions in French on August 21 from my home in Japan. To compose the English version of this researcher blog entry, I went through the whole English survey site on August 23rd, but I didn’t press the final button “Submit your answers” so as not to answer the survey twice. No proof of European citizenship was ever requested of me,6 even though, towards the end of the survey, a question is asked about the country of residence, and it is anticipated that some answers will come from outside the European Union.

Screen capture, August 21

Somewhat surprisingly, the survey doesn’t just focus on the themes of future banknotes, but also on their design, sometimes in fairly precise terms: “For each theme, you will be presented with a short description that will explain the idea behind the theme, a storyline and a possible design for the future banknote.”7

  • Some of the descriptions have a lyrical edge: “Banknotes could show parts of Europe’s rivers crossing borders – from source to sea, through rugged mountains, cultivated landscapes and grand cities, from quiet solitude to busy commerce.”
  • “Each banknote could take its colour and imagery from a particular European bird, with matching motifs from the seasons of the year, European landscapes, or human activity. A banknote could feature an owl, signifying wisdom, a winter landscape, and a human activity representing knowledge, such as science.”
  • (‘Hands: Together we build Europe’) “A banknote could represent the European value of ‘the rule of law’ by depicting a hand holding the scales of justice.”
  • (‘Our Europe, ourselves’) “Each banknote could have an image representing our human individuality along with symbols of our common European values and aspirations.” “‘Communicating’, for example, could be illustrated by a human mouth and other images representing freedom of speech and the richness of languages.”
  • (‘European values mirrored in nature’) “A banknote representing democracy could use visuals like the European Parliament, the voting process (represented by a hand), or a European seascape with a beach, where every grain of sand matters, just as every European citizen counts.”
  • (‘The future is yours’) “Banknotes could show a silhouette of a person that could represent anyone — combined with images related to different fields, such as science (e.g. astronomy) and associated occupations or areas of expertise (e.g. astronauts).”
  • (‘European culture’) “Banknotes could depict monuments, artworks, literature, music or science and their makers. A famous European artwork and the related artist could, for example, be visualised on a banknote.”

The survey provides justifications and clarifications that do not appear in the press release: “‘Rivers: the waters of life in Europe’is inspired by European landscapes and combines the natural wonders of Europe with the broader themes of interconnectedness and sustainability.” “‘Birds: free, resilient, inspiring’ is inspired by one of the earliest pieces of EU legislation on the environment – the ‘EU Birds Directive’ – that protects all 500 of the area’s wild bird species.” “‘Hands: Together we build Europe’ is inspired by the European Union motto: “United in diversity” and represents all the people who have created Europe. The theme will represent the six values of the EU as defined in the Treaty of Lisbon: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights, expressed through images of hands, making the EU’s values more immediate and human.” “‘Our Europe, ourselves’ celebrates the individual and collective lives of the people in Europe based on six aspects: being, doing, thinking, loving, communicating and living.” “‘European values mirrored in nature’ represents the six values of the European Union as defined in the Treaty of Lisbon: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights. The theme also depicts our connection with and respect for nature and the environment.” “‘The future is yours’ focuses on Europeans and their potential to shape the future of Europe with their ideas and vision. It celebrates each and every European, with their skills and visions, in fields ranging from science and technology to art.” “‘European culture’ is a rich and diverse mosaic of cultural and creative expression, an inheritance from previous generations of Europeans and a legacy for those to come. European culture teaches each generation of Europeans about the past and prepares them for the future, all while contributing to the cohesion and welfare of our societies.”

It’s worth noting that some of these themes quote, sometimes imperfectly, official European Union documents: the Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds (first version from 1979), article 1 a of the Treaty of Lisbon (without mentioning the phrase “including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”).8 In the French version of the survey, a slip of the tongue seems to have struck the European Union motto used to explain the theme “Hands: Together we build Europe”: the feminine form of the adjective in the official version (“Unie dans la diversité“, I suppose that Europe is meant) has become a plural (“Unis dans la diversité”), probably an unverified translation from the English “United in diversity”.

For each theme, an initial question is posed: “Based on the description below, do you like or dislike this option as a theme for future banknotes?”. This is followed by a three-cell table presenting briefly the theme, its “storyline” and a possible design.

Screen capture, August 23

A scroll-down box allows to answer the initial question.

Screen capture, August 23

After answering this main question, if the answer is favorable, you are asked “What do you like about this theme?” with a choice of boxes to tick, multiple answers being allowed: “The banknotes would look attractive. This theme would represent Europe well. I can relate to it. It is inclusive of all Europeans. I can understand it easily. This theme will still be relevant in the future. Other. Prefer not to say. Don’t know.” Note that choosing “Other” does not subsequently allow this answer to be explained.

If the answer to the first question is not favorable, “What do you dislike about this theme?” is asked, with the following choice of answers: “The banknotes would not look attractive. This theme would not represent Europe well. I cannot relate to it. It is not inclusive of all Europeans. I cannot understand it easily. This theme might not be relevant in the future. Other. Prefer not to say. Don’t know”.

Answering “I neither like nor dislike it” to the initial question gives access to both sets of justifications, one after the other.

The theme questions are followed by a question about the country of residence, as mentioned above.

I don’t really understand the point of the consecutive questions on gender, age, level of education and employment status, but it is possible not to answer them, and I suppose their purpose is to control and calibrate the survey.

Screen capture, August 21

The last question seems to me to be more pertinent, and more relevant to the purpose of the survey: “When you make purchases in physical locations, how do you pay?” Fortunately, it is again possible not to answer.

The survey concludes with a word of thanks, but the standard option of leaving an e-mail address to be notified of its results is not included.

A brief conclusion

The European Central Bank’s survey on future euro banknotes somewhat awkwardly mixes questions on themes and design. It contributes only moderately to the gathering of people’s opinions, since it is strictly controlled: it only allows the ticking of boxes, without accepting sentences or messages written by the respondents.9 Admittedly, this would have required far greater financial resources to process the responses; indeed, we’d like to know how much it costs to use the independent research firm that conducts a study parallel to the public on-line survey. Formal control of the survey is accompanied by control of the publicity and use of its results, about which we know nothing, and for which the ECB seems to have made no commitment.

The ECB’s limited promotion of the survey and its apparent lack of impact in the media, as well as the “novlangue” of its press release, seem to testify to a certain political pusillanimity, which is reinforced by the imprecise presentation of environmental protection actions, masked behind a vague love of nature, and the incomplete citation of article 1 a of the Lisbon Treaty, an imprecision which erases minority rights from the survey.10 It is probably no coincidence that these two subjects – environment protection and the rights of minorities, whether sexual or ethnic – are the subject of widely differing opinions among the governments of the various member countries of the Union, and therefore sources of tensions within the EU. I would add that this pusillanimity seems to be shared by the media, at least the French-, English-, Italian, Dutch- and German-speaking presses, which, it seems to me, should be giving better coverage to the themes of the euro banknotes, European values and identity.

Finally, the main problem with the survey and the proposed themes seems to me to be illustrated by the impossibility of explaining the answer “Other” when you don’t like one of them. I would have liked to have been able to write, quite simply, that the theme proposed was not particularly European. The defense of the environment, the love of nature and freedom, “the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” are ideals that many other parts of the world currently have in common with Europe, and that are shared by people all over the world, even if their governments don’t adhere to them.11 If we wish to highlight them on euro banknotes, we must do so, in my opinion, not in a general, abstract way, but by anchoring them in European history and heritage, by choosing specific historical places and people or natural landscapes and monuments, even if this means offending a few national sensitivities.12

Citer ce billet
Alexis D'Hautcourt (2023, 23 août). A short critical assessment of the ECB survey on new themes for euro banknotes. Faces d'identité. Consulté le 30 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/olzz

  1. This is an English version of the original French blog entry. If you see some funny or unclear English, please, leave a message. []
  2. European Central Bank, PRESS RELEASE. ECB surveys Europeans on new themes for euro banknotes (July 10, 2023). []
  3. The group’s report is available on the ECB website: Theme Advisory Group report on the selection of a theme for future euro banknotes (PDF) (September 2022). []
  4. “The theme highlights the role of European values (human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights) as the building blocks of Europe and links these values to our respect for nature and the preservation of the environment.” []
  5. On the other hand, the online publication of the advisory group’s report is to be commended. []
  6. Here is the survey’s “Disclaimer. Participation in this survey is voluntary. This survey is strictly anonymous and does not include any identifying or identifiable data. Answers are automatically anonymised and cannot be traced back to respondents by the ECB or the third-party provider. Efforts have been made to ensure the anonymity of this survey. The recipients of the survey results are limited to the dedicated ECB team and the third-party provider for the sole purpose of analysis. []
  7. Bold letters from the survey website. []
  8. ‘Article 1a. The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’ []
  9. In addition, the designer of the current banknotes, Robert Kalina, is right to point out that the survey doesn’t let people express the wish not to change and continue to use the current banknotes. []
  10. It should be noted that these two themes were explicitly discussed by the Advisory Group: environmental protection passim, minority rights p. 40 and 25. []
  11. Curiously, in the Advisory Group’s report, this problem is only highlighted in relation to rivers: “Not strictly a European theme” (p. 5). At the risk of sounding cynical, it seems to me that the report suffers elsewhere from what may appear to be naivety. For example, it considers it an advantage of the same rivers theme that “Rivers cross borders freely.” (p. 5), without taking into account that, historically, rivers themselves constitute borders, which are sometimes deadly to cross. As for the theme of birds, it is not pointed out that, in view of international competitions and violence, one would not fail to wonder who is the big cat that would munch the European bird. []
  12. On the other hand, if the choice is made to represent historical personalities I think it is essential to respect the principle of parity between men and women. []
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Catégorisé comme English

Par Alexis D'Hautcourt

Professeur, Université des Langues Étrangères du Kansai (関西外国語大学, Kansai Gaidai University)

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