With the crisis in Greece rumbling ominously along in the background, I thought it might be an appropriate time to have a look at a publication produced to celebrate the introduction of the new European currency (imaginatively called the Euro). Of late, there has been a marked tendency to reduce issues surrounding the European Union to simplified pro or anti arguments in which the subtleties and nuances of a very complicated subject disappear (particularly in the UK). This binary argument allows no middle ground for those who think that the idea of keeping the Pandora’s Box of European nationalism firmly shut is a good thing, whilst also recognising that there are deep flaws at heart of this political project. This is important because the continual failure to address these flaws has resulted in stagnation and a sense of malaise that afflicts much of Europe. Firstly, what is the big-idea that lies at the heart of the whole European project? Simply put, it is designed to prevent nationalistic rivalries from once again spilling over into World War by tying the various countries of Europe so closely together that they would have to resolve their differences through discussion and negotiation rather than by killing each other. That’s it. In return, the pay-off was economic prosperity for all. This was supposed to produce a happy and contented European continent. This trade-off lies at the core of the argument for increased cooperation by European countries. For many decades this deal sort of worked. Most of the time. But with the rolling financial crises that have engulfed various European countries since 2008 this arrangement has come under increasing pressure. While the benefits of European co-operation are regarded positively by most people, nationalism never disappeared. In terms of loyalty, the European Union has lukewarm popular support at best. People still feel a deep affinity for their nations. And in times of crisis it reappears. Put at it’s most stark, it would be a very hard-sell to convince people to join some sort of pan-European army if the European Union suddenly went to war with Russia. Sacrificing yourself for Spain, Belgium, France, Denmark Latvia, or any other European country you care to name, is something that millions of people have willingly done over the past couple of centuries. Patriotism and the national ideal are something that people will readily die for. But who is going to put their life on the line for the European Union? To protect the legacy of Jean Monnet? To risk life and limb for the Common Agricultural Policy? Or the principles of social inclusion embodied by the European Social Fund? A very hard sell.
The core, underlying problem that lies at the heart of the various EU institutions is the lack of buy-in from the people they are supposed to represent. This is euphemistically termed the democratic deficit and the various official institutions have been scurrying around for the past couple of decades trying to make themselves more accountable and relevant to the public throughout Europe. (Such as the European Parliament – the MEP who purports to represent me vanished into a black hole for five years until he suddenly resurfaced in the months prior to the last election. He then plastered every lamppost with posters about a series of public discussions in various local hotels about cyber-bullying he was holding in a transparent attempt to demonstrate both his common touch and what an important guy in Europe he is.) So why does this matter? Simply put, without widespread public support the EU is dead in the water. It becomes irrelevant. Of course the institutions and structures of the EU will keep plodding along on auto-pilot (once you set up a big bureaucratic apparatus it is almost impossible to dismantle it under normal circumstances) but without public support such institutions become hollow at the core, devoid of any substantial motivating ideas and growing less and less significant to the average person. This combination of indifference, cynicism, frustration or anger on the part of the public towards these remote institutions opens them up to attack by national political actors and parties. They exploit this apathy towards EU institutions in order to mobilise support amongst their population to pursue national agendas, whilst also using Europe as a convenient way to shirk blame when things go wrong. All national politicians have used this tactic for decades. And, to a large degree, it works quite well.
This brings us to the Euro, the common currency that was introduced in January 2002 and the subject of this book by German photographer Claudio Hils. Published by the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen and supported by the European Central Bank (the institution responsible for the new currency) this book was produced as a visual record showing the introduction of the new money. After seven years of austerity, uncertainty, unemployment, social unrest and political turmoil throughout the continent, it is a rather surreal experience to examine this work about the advent of the Euro. Optimism pervades throughout the texts. Prosperity for all is coming. Everything will get better. As the introductory essay by Ulrich Schneider states: “the aim of ever closer union in Europe has doubtlessly been brought considerably closer with the introduction of the single currency.” Oh dear. Similarly, in an essay provided by Antii Heinonen (from the European Central Bank) he notes that “in the early hours of 1 January 2002, long queues formed at some cash dispensers as everyone waited to examine the new banknotes.”
How times have changed. Today, long queues forming at cash dispensers are the stuff of nightmares for European politicians.
Hils images document this transitional phase when the old national currencies were being phased out in preparation for the launch of the Euro. Photographs of shredded banknote cubes, Irish punts with holes punched through them and sliced up German one mark coins are all used to signify the supposed end of this era of quaint nationalism. These images are complemented by the photographs depicting the manufacturing process that occurs in sleek, antiseptically clean, hi-tech factories where shiny new coins and bundles of crisp notes are churned out by gleaming machinery. Alongside these rather antiseptic factories, Hils shows us the interiors of various Central banks, where signs of disorder and subtle disruptions to the corporate aesthetic (such as bank note wrappers hurriedly ripped off and dumped by an office chair) introduce an element of urgency and chaos into the supposedly well organised changeover to the Euro. Similarly, portraits of the backroom workers who operate the machines, check the watermarks and do the myriad other tasks required to physically produce a currency provide a human dimension to the process. These are the invisible spaces, places and people that the media does not normally show us. The other aspects that Hils documents are more visible and part of the familiar experience of everyday life that we encounter on the news and in movies. So we have the understandable pre-occupation with security; serious looking men with sub-machine guns, helicopters, money convoys, secure cash boxes and all the other paraphernalia associated with moving large amounts of cash (and that we have become familiar with from so many heist movies over the years). The final sequence of imagery deals with the media and advertising campaign designed to educate the public about the new money; posters in the baggage reclaim area of Dublin airport, a Finnish family watching a TV infomercial, a small pack of journalists surrounding a Dutch politician (who appears to be trapped in a cage thanks to the series of flagpoles he is standing alongside), TV cameras and lights set up in front of a local government building in Maastricht on a grey winter’s day, and a neon sign stuck on to the railings of the Luxembourg national bank are all used to signify the culmination of this changeover process. Then we are shown some people at midnight of the launch day excitedly examining crisp 10 Euro notes on the street.
Like many projects of this nature, the photographer has to ensure that the requirements of the commissioning body are acknowledged whilst also ensuring that the critical quality of the work is not compromised. Certainly, those who commissioned his work wanted to show an efficient and well organised operation, which would demonstrate their mastery of the many logistical problems involved. Although Hils does document the success of this transitional period, the photographs also operate to critique the various institutional behemoths that underscore this process. The impersonal corporate spaces and the surveillance and regimentation of all those involved in this process all evoke a unsettling mood that contrasts with the upbeat introductory texts penned by the various cheerleaders of this political project.
Unlike other books I have reviewed where the passage of time and hindsight has exposed the hollowness of the agendas and claims made by the authors, this publication is more ambiguous. The very architecture of the Euro (constructed through a process of political horse-trading, compromises and short term priorities) laid the foundations for the current crisis that rumbles ominously onwards. How will this short-sighted thinking impact upon broader social and political developments into the future? Nobody really knows. There are just too many variables that feed into the mix and the unintended long-term consequences of any actions taken are impossible to predict. Certainly the track record of the various European institutions and the big-wigs charged with sorting out the mess over the past seven years has been less than encouraging. A central problem there is that there are too many competing interests and mutually incompatible priorities (at personal, political, national and international levels). Hence, we are left with the default policy of damage control and muddling through as the European project lurches blindly forward into what appears to be an unpredictable future.