Since the 1950s, the European powers that be have tried to solve a single conundrum: How do you unify a bunch of countries that have spent the last 3,000 years holding grudges, waging wars, and naming their least favorite venereal diseases after each other? The answer, in part, was the creation of the European Union and its greatest icon, the Euro, that colorful bit of Monopoly money with the buildings and the windows and the bridges. But what few people know is that both the Euro's design and the story of its origin are the perfect symbols of its union -- a creation process that was equal parts poignant, progressive, and constantly teetering on the point of pointlessness. 

The Lead-Up Was An Endless Journey Of Bureaucracy

 

Like anything cursed by the red-taped hand of the bureaucracy mummy, the origin story of the Euro banknote doesn't begin with a bang as much as the whimper of a bored DMV employee. It was all the way back in the 1960s that the EU (or whatever Scrabble letter spill it was going by that year) was keen on developing its own money, knowing full well that Europeans would never feel an intrinsic interconnectedness if they had to keep popping into currency exchanges every time they went further than 40 kilometers from their houses.

I just took a wrong turn at the end of the street. How am I suddenly in Luxembourg?

But these are still European bureaucrats we're talking about. So when I said they were keen, I meant that they spent the next three decades arguing about how to go about maybe starting going about doing it. But after the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the newly rejiggered EU at last formed its Economic and Monetary Union. And together with this giant EMU, the EU committee began designing its biggest camel: the Euro banknote. 

To move things along, responsibility was placed in the experienced hands of the European Central Bank -- which technically didn't exist yet in 1992 but was set to succeed the European Monetary Institute -- which technically didn't exist yet in 1992 but was set to succeed the European Monetary Cooperation Fund. And the pre-natal ECB/EMI knew the hard road that lay ahead of it. Not content with just churning a bunch of colorful IOUs, the Euro had to be a perfect encapsulation of the continent's values. It had to create a united front between all Europeans -- unlike every other front ever erected in Europe.

And if getting ready to do it took decades, this would not be a quickie procedure either. Deciding on the name for the new money? That would take two years. (Rejected proposals included the European dollar, the ECU, and the Ducat -- for added pirate fun). Then came the design. Of the money? No, of the competition between all member nations to see who would get to design the money. That would also take two years. Then, after the Hunger Games of monetary unity was over, the ECI would be able to make its decision … on which ten designers would make the finale. That would also take two years. It sure seems like anything even tangentially related to an EU assignment tends to take two years to get going.

Writing that paragraph? Took two years. 

This doesn't even address the GDPR-groaning levels of data the EU collected for this task through vast armies of experts. Or the vast armies of experts those experts consulted whom in turn, having run out of experts, consulted random street polls and cold-called hungover students at 11 in the morning. Some of these sub-committees were very prudent and inclusive, like those for the design of the Euro's impressive security features or the European Blind Union (EBU) consultation on how each bill could feel recognizable even when fishing it out of your pocket without looking. Others, not so much, like spending several years aggressively polling and collecting data on random to figure out which shiny piece of paper would convince them the most to join the European Union -- that's a lot of pressure to put on a piece of paper.

Good thing the GDPR wasn’t around back then, right guys?

It wouldn't be until 2002 that Europeans finally laid hands on their new means of payment: a bunch of colorful rectangles adorned with generic-looking windows, buildings, and bridges. And while there wasn't anything possible to take offense at by design (more on that in a bit), these banknotes should have made Europeans mad as hell, because ...

There Was Almost A Unicorn On The 100 Euro Bill

 

While I've just spent a (meta-pleasing) excess of time describing how long it took for the Euro design to get to the good bit, it must be said that -- by the time EU's Next Top Banknote Designer started -- its panel knew precisely what they wanted. And that vision was very much reflected in their artistic instructions, which were as simple and clear as an IKEA furniture manual. And just about as easy to get creative with. 

There were only two rules for designing the Euro banknote. The first and most obvious one was in regards to style. Participants were allowed to choose between two themes: "ages and styles of Europe" or "abstract/modern." "Ages and styles" had designers use the banknotes as a monetary monument tour. Each bill celebrated one of Europe's iconic architectural styles from classical Greco-Roman architecture on the 5 Euro note up to "modern 20th-century architecture" on the 500 Euros.

Because nothing unites Europeans quicker than being smug about their old buildings. 

Of the two, this was the more traditional and less adventurous thematic choice. That explains why most entries look like pics of your least fun museum school trip after someone put them through the most grating Instagram color filter they could find. Some did try to zhoosh up their tame theme by making every other part of the banknote as attention-grabbing as possible. This caused many to fall into the ironic trap of making their money simultaneously too busy and boring. Like this almost neon 50 Euro note that blends security and aesthetic features with all the unsettling dullness of a Death Star corridor.

So this is what it's like to be in the nightmare of a software engineer.

Or this forever-wrinkled five hundred that looks intentionally designed to not be accepted by finicky vending machines.

E Pluribus Anus

Meanwhile, the "abstract/modern" designers had the challenge of unifying hundreds of millions of people with an art style that causes squinting disdain from everyone who has never worked on their novel in a busy Starbucks. These pecuniary pioneers can be broad stroked into three categories. The first basically invented a new expressionist sub-genre called "copyright freeism," overcorrecting their divisive theme with art so strikingly generic it borders on stock image parody.

A lot of us would pay good money to have Hide The Pain Harold on their fiver. 

These can be especially disturbing since many used children as their subjects, their vacant, doll-like eyes peering out of the paper like they can see through your wallet and straight into your soul.

Still beats appearing on the side of a milk carton.

Then there were the ones who really leaned into the artsiness, setting their sights on becoming the first-ever abstract moneymaker, the Joan Mitchell of moolah, the Salvador Dali of Avida dollars. These artists tested the limits of how avant-garde you can get working on the most capitalist canvas possible. Like putting a nude model on the back doing his best Austin Powers routine to hide their banknote boner. Or the type of minimalist surrealism that not only defies interpretation but also challenges you to make up any good street slang for your money.

Hey man, can you break this thumb eye ink reed into 10 traffic light kites for me?

And then you had the third, hidden category: the wildcards. These were the artists who just said "screw it" and made the banknote they had been wanting to make since they were eight years old -- damn bureaucratic decorum. In their whimsical fantasy world, there was a real chance that Europeans today would be paying for their stuff with bills depicting a majestic unicorn …

If my name isn’t only the list, maybe you know my friend *pulls out a hundo* Mrs. Sparkles?

Or an adorable litter of kittens.

Granted, this would've caused a cuteness trade embargo with Japan.

Or, in that other popular brand of European alt-history, celebrate the unification of Europe by putting a guy with a toothbrush mustache on their money ...

Wait, wasn't the EU established so this exact thing would never happen?

Or, somehow more offensive, a Van Dyke.

Why does this 500 Euro bill look like it’s trying to sell me a 300 Euro bill?

That's some radical, out-of-the-box, no compromises-designs for an EU competition. But didn't these artists read the second rule of the contest? The one that made it clear that ...

The Winning Design Had To Jump Through So Many Political Hoops

 

Easy as it is to become desensitized to the EU's esoteric rule-making, this is the point when we have to snap out of it and ask the important question: What the hell is this nonsense? Why on earth did the EMI force their designers to faff around with nondescript buildings and tease us with promises of expressionist kittens? 

Because any rookie banknote designer can tell you there are only three acceptable things to put on money anyway: iconic landmarks, crypto-religious easter eggs, and, of course, dead racist presidents. And if you're casually thumbing through the official Euro design booklet (which you should do since you're probably already reading this on the toilet anyway), you'll be forgiven for at least seeing plenty of iconic European historical figures popping up, like Julius Caesar, Sarah Bernhardt or Oscar Wilde.

Hardest game of Fuck Mary Kill you'll ever play.

Until you blink twice and notice that the figureheads on the bills are not the real deal. Instead, they're freshly drawn models by the designers who are facially similar to, but legally distinct from, any celebrity lookalikes. Like this second rate impressionist version of Marie Curie …

It would've been cool to get the first glow in the dark banknote, though.

Or the most famous European of all time: Spock.

“Live long and prosperous” is a much better money motto than “United in diversity” anyway.

That seems like an unnecessary cheapskate loophole to take for an international governing body that controls all of said loopholes. But the artists were simply following the impossible second rule of the Euro design: "All designs must ensure gender equality and avoid any national bias." That's a tough rule for a currency design competition (not the gender part, that was just there so the UK wouldn't copy paste Charles Darwin on all seven designs). Banknotes are inherently pieces of patriotic propaganda, but the EU had done its maths: If you have seven banknotes and try to divide them over 12 countries' worth of nationalistic pride, you get (carry the two) World War III.

Yet at the same time, the rule continued: "The banknotes must be clearly identifiable as European and should embody a cultural and political message that is readily acceptable to all European citizens" So in summation, the Euro bill had to be "international" without the "national" part, to showcase the history, art, and culture of Europe without ever referencing any of the specific history, art, or culture that took place there in the past 2,500 years.

No wonder some candidates like Irish artist Robert Ballagh, threw his hands up and, in either a fit of ironic genius or defeat, put a bunch of common European animals on his banknotes. If you think about it, his design did tick all the boxes: animals know no borders, these ones are culturally significant to Europe as a whole, and, well, who doesn't love animals? But would Europeans feel proud to be European while paying for their groceries with pictures of common garden pests ...

Keep the snails, pal. 

Or while flaunting their responsibly taxed wealth in the club by making it rain crustaceans?

Not the most typical way clubbers spread crabs.

e'll never know, of course. None of these designs ever truly stood a chance anyway -- except for one. Because at the end of the bank holiday ...

The Most Obvious Metaphor Was Always Going To Win

 

In the end (and this EU committee business -- we are never anywhere near the end), all that analyzing, testing, and polling paid off handsomely. The final data pointed to a clear winner: Belgian designer Maryke Degryse and her aesthetic vision of a Europe united in its dedication to the sciences ...

Knockoff Marie Curie would’ve been so proud. 

Humanitarianism ...

You can’t see it, but the doves just took a giant shit on the nearest statue of a slave trader. 

And, um, loom-based "folk dancing?"

Way to cater to the Eastern European crowd there, Maryke. 

It was these elegantly modern banknotes that had captured the hearts and minds of the European people, or at least 52% of them (popularity so unprecedented in EU polls most European Members of Parliament don't even know the numbers can go up that high). With such a clear preference, the EMI jurors felt very comfortable making their final decision to ... completely ignore Degryse and instead pick the dude in distant second place. How did he manage to, would you say, bridge that gap? You wouldn't? But the joke really doesn't work unless you-- it's bridges. He did it with actual bridges.

Nothing says hope and togetherness like those things people keep committing suicide off of. 

While Austrian designer Robert Kalina barely had half the approval rating of Degryse, he did have something far more important in the eyes of the (still not existing) European Central Bank: artistic symbolism so straightforward even a banker could get it. The windowpanes on the front of his Euro? They stand for transparency. The open doorways? Openness between nations. And, most mind-blowing of all, the bridges? Symbolic bridges! So much easier to grok than Degryse's with her silly DNA strings, or those unplanted trees and compasses pointing outside of Europe to symbolize "development aid" or whatever.

 

Like, we get it, Maryke, you’ve read other things than quarterly green papers on the trade prospectus of regionally protected goat cheeses. Nerd.

 

With the name, design, and designer finally in place, the EU was ready to unveil its highly anticipated official currency … in another two-to-five years. In the meantime, the EMI had a little job for Kalina. With several of his bridges noticeably inspired by actual European ones, the artist spent the next long while redesigning them to get rid of any and all obvious references to real life, partisan, Europe. Kalina was also joined by a team of engineers to check if his fake pen-and-paper bridges could support the right amount of proportionate traffic. It's almost as if they knew that one day some snarky ass from a comedy website would write 3,000 words nitpicking at every slightly flawed detail of the Euro banknote.

But they needn't have worried about someone sarcastically undermining their noble attempt at symbolic bridge building. They should've been more scared that those bridges would get burned down when ...

Someone Actually Wound Up Building The Euro Bridges

 

For 10 years, the paper Euro managed to fulfill its symbolic purpose. Its imaginary bridges acted as landmarks signifying European unity, culture, and history without any single nation able to claim ownership over them. That was until a Dutch designer Robert Stam decided to steal the very bridges from the money and transport them into the real world like some sort of third-rate Lego Movie villain. "You might be surprised to find out these bridges are purely fictional -- they don't exist anywhere in Europe," the conceptual artist exclaimed in a later interview, before adding: "That is until I decided to do something about it."

The Bridges Of Mad-EU County

Together with his artistic outfit Rotganzen ("Ass-Geese"), a design collective which technically didn't exist yet back then and specializes in not understanding the socio-political implications behind iconic imagery -- they once melted a disco ball as "an ode to the happy days of way back when," which is definitely one way to interpret the death of disco -- Stam began construction of the "Bridges of Europe" in 2012. A P.R. stunt as part of a swanky housing estate project in the swampy town of Spijkenisse near Rotterdam, the river-locked estates would receive seven bridges which, thanks to wooden molds and colored concrete, be perfect miniatures of the bridges on everyone's banknotes.

Don’t go under the 500 Euro bridge. The hobos there are such elitists.

That means that, since 2014, the seven bridges on the Euro bill are no longer an impartial symbol of unity; instead, they're a tourist attraction in the North of the Netherlands owned and paid for by the Dutch government. Exactly what Robert Kalina must've dreamed of would happen while he spent months painstakingly removing any real-life parallel to his specifically purely symbolic bridges.

Granted, undermining a unification symbol by building a reinforced bridge is some impressive ironic conceptional smuggery. 

Or did he? While it might seem to the naked eye that Kalina's fictional bridges are in no way linked to any single European nation's bridge, that doesn't mean they're not in there. All of them. In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, Kalina pointed out that he technically was never tasked with destroying the references to actual European bridges, just that no one should be able to recognize them, i.e., they had to be so small and fragmented that no one could tell the individual through the union. 

Yes, the Euro bridges may now stand in Spijkenisse, the Netherlands. But they also still stand in Germany. And Portugal. And Finland. And everywhere else in Europe. Which parts? From where? No one knows (maybe not even Kalina anymore), and that's the point. All of these unrecognizable cultural fragments are just floating about like the bits of mystery meat enriching the perpetual stew inside of Europe's melting pot. 

So did the bank notes achieve what they set out to do? In many ways, absolutely not. I can't think of a single sane human being who would advocate joining the EU based on how cool its Monopoly money is. But as a symbol for the administrative union it represents, that over-wrought, under-valued, inoffensively obtrusive cacophony of cultural contradictions created to showcase commendable yet barely cohesive ideals? I couldn't think of a more creative example.

Could've used more unicorns, though. 

For more pro-anti-pro-anti-pro-EU storytelling, do follow Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: EU / ECB / PxHere / ScWikiSc, Wikimedia Commons

 

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