Euro Lovers of the World, Unite!

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Does the euro’s design have a fatal flaw? The currency itself looks marvellous. And if it’s a question of economic elegance, it wins on first principles

The euro has a design flaw. Now that even shoeshine boys are saying it, it’s perhaps time to pose a two-word question: does it? With the EU’s unified currency estimated to have some 15 billion banknotes—worth nearly €900 billion—rustling around the planet, it’s not a trivial question. But it takes just a glance to guess what the flaw-wallahs must be talking about. Each banknote bears the word ‘euro’ in Latin and Greek scripts, and the latter looks more like ‘typo’. There’s also a map on the obverse side that looks like an inkblot test designed to make you reveal your worst nightmares. But these two ranklers recede rapidly as the rest of the elements cast their charm: arches, windows and bridges of assorted architectural styles. The grey €5 note has a Classical aquaduct, the red €10 note has Romanesque work, and the blue ¤20 note has Gothic arches.

Symbolic? Might be. The classic archway, the real thing, is a design wonder in itself. It uses gravity to defy gravity. It needs no synthetic material as cement. All an arch needs is a focal point, and the force that its archblocks exert along the arc on one another keeps it from crashing down on some poor fellow’s head.

Speaking of ‘head’, by far the most appealing aspect of the euro design is that it bears none. Every banknote is faceless. Unlike most currencies that serve as legal tender—and illegal whatever else—across the world, the euro has no head of state, no doddering monarch, no war hero, no electric kite flier, no ghostly outline, no paternal eminence, no nothing.

But wait... the design flaw some of its critics talk about is something that exists in that other great realm of the unseen, economics. After all, who has ever heard of a monetary union without a fiscal one? Shouldn’t the EU be something of a single country for the euro to succeed? Also, while EU members may have agreed last fortnight on a united plan to iron-girdle their banks, and maybe even on a way to share their debt someday (‘eurobonds’), critics point to a far bigger flaw that threatens the project: the fact that eurozone economies have been unable to achieve synchrony. With varied rhythms, they argue, each still needs its own monetary policy (set to local conditions) and own currency (bobbing up and down against others to balance imports and exports).

That may partly be so, but why blame the euro’s original design? The eurozone’s convergence plan was supposed to keep such things from going out of whack. It still could. Moreover, it often pays to assess a project solely on first principles. The euro is a worthy idea. And in theory, a currency’s success rests primarily on its integrity of issuance. Printing presses, in other words, must not work overtime. On this, thankfully, the euro has brooked no compromise so far.