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Politically correct new coins Euro: A Belgian coin designer should have been a diplomat. His design of the European Union's new coins seemed to do the impossible -- satisfy all 15 member states.

LONDON — LONDON -- It sure was tough designing a new coin for Europe. Just ask Luc Luycx, the man whose design was selected for the first euro coins, due to jingle in the pockets of Europeans beginning Jan. 1, 2002.

Put the Acropolis on the shiny face of a euro and the Italians would demand the Pantheon. Stick a portrait of Beethoven on a coin, and the British would start lobbying for Elgar.

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Luycx, a designer for the Belgian Royal Mint, hit on an idea so simple, it was ingenious.

"Only a map would do," he says. "I wanted each citizen of Europe, when he sees the coin -- he likes the coin. I didn't want people to see one country more than another."

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Luycx won the top prize when the coins were unveiled at a June European summit meeting in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Some critics have derided the coins for being too bland, but no one has yet claimed they are politically incorrect -- or that the map that features the 15 member states of the European Union was botched. There's even a spot on the back of the coins for each country to stick a national symbol.

hTC For the euro debate, this is quite an advance.

For the past few months, Europe has been transfixed by the struggle to establish the European monetary union and the eventual creation of a new, single European currency. The euro has been billed as the linchpin of a united continent. But not everyone is thrilled with giving up their francs, pounds and marks for a new currency that will be under no single country's control.

Political and social battles have been waged in Germany and France as their governments seek to cut their budget deficits to 3 percent of their gross domestic product -- the magic number needed to qualify for entering the European monetary union. In England, the euro debate helped tear apart the Conservative Party before its landslide loss to Labor this spring.

According to the euro timetable, early next year the list of member states participating in the common currency will be decided and a European Central Bank established. In 1999, the central bank will take control of monetary policy and exchange rates will be fixed. The euro bills and coins are to be phased in over six months beginning in January, 2002.

The euro debate has shown how much Europeans care about the proposed look of their cash -- some 12 billion bank notes and 70 billion coins.

"Bank notes are really like a cultural identity card of a country," says Claire Lobel, a bank note specialist for the Coincraft shop in London. "The motif is significant for that country. Countries choose historical figures, great philosophers. Notes do tell you about a country's history and culture. You'd lose that with the euro. The euro is supposed to be neutral."

But in Europe, cash is rarely neutral.

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The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II adorns pound coins and bills in Britain -- a country unlikely to join the first wave in the European monetary union.

King Juan Carlos of Spain appears on some peseta coins.

The newest French notes honor such luminaries as engineer and bridge builder Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of "The Little Prince."

The Dutch have recently dispatched historical figures from their cash, preferring a computer-generated design that looks like a mosaic tile.

"I think the design is one of those paradoxical things," says Virginia Hewitt, curator of paper money at the British Museum. "Yes, it matters because the notes are symbolic. But if you ask people what's on their notes or coins, they usually don't know."

Still, the look of the euro is important.

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Last December in Dublin, Ireland, European officials unveiled the proposed new euro bank notes. The bank notes showed monuments and bridges but no European people.

"The difficulty with people," said Alexander Lamfalussy, president of the European Monetary Institute, the forerunner of the central bank, "is that people usually belong to a country."

There were other problems with the notes, which were designed by Robert Kalina of the National Bank of Austria.

Somebody messed up the map of Europe.

Parts of Finland were missing. The Shetland Islands -- and Turkey -- were nowhere to be seen.

But the biggest blow came in February.

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European officials were saying the architectural motifs used in the notes were strictly anonymous, without ties to any country. But a British bridge enthusiast named Russ Swann discovered that the bridges depicted on the currency were altogether real: They are bridges in France, Italy, Spain and India.

So, back to the drawing board for the new euro bills.

"I didn't think the prototypes were that bad," says Hewitt of the British Museum. "The criticism over the bridges was pedantic. Even if they can be traced to specific originals as a source for the drawings, that does not alter the fact that they were typical bridges used during the ages of European architecture. I don't see that there is a problem."

"Some of the criticism of the designs may be less to do with the designs themselves then the fact of seeing prototype designs gives a visceral form to a political idea that worries people," she added.

By 2002, the designers may hit on the right format for the euro.

Pub Date: 7/10/97



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