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Cash is a symbol of national sovereignty

Because citizens come into contact with banknotes and coins every day, they see them as a symbol of national sovereignty. Money is a cultural instrument that conveys a message of unity for a political community.

Banknotes circulate among large numbers of people and over vast geographical areas. As a result, they are often used to promote the country they represent and its values. Significant efforts go into a banknote design, involving experts in fields as diverse as history, sociology, psychology, and graphic arts to best reflect the country it represents. Banknotes tell a story about a country’s heritage.

The design of the euro notes proved a particular challenge as they represent not one, but twelve countries when the euro was launched, 19 today and potentially more. Antti Heinonen, former Director of Banknotes at the European Central Bank recalls the process102: “Although most member states had a tradition of placing portraits of famous people on their currency, the banknote working group felt that this suffered the serious defect of an inevitable national bias.” One alternative was to display portraits of ordinary men and women across the ages, taken from European paintings and drawings. “The majority of the team feared, however, that it would be difficult to find pictures that would always remain nameless, that would be aesthetically pleasing and that would represent the genders and different nationalities in a balanced way. There was always the possibility that a portrait would be identified and associated with some region or country on the basis of its features, decoration style and location.” The winning design, created by Robert Kalina from the printing works of the Austrian Central Bank, features bridges, arches and gateways in different architectural styles. The design was then modified to ensure that these architectural features do not represent existing monuments. 

Besides picturing the country’s heritage and values, currency also plays a strategic role in economic terms: it provides a domestic payment system. There are numerous examples where payment cards are not accepted in a country due to political tensions. In Cuba for instance, credit cards issued by US banks are not accepted though this may evolve as diplomatic relations between the two countries improve. 

A currency also reflects the strength and various aspects of the economy. The international circulation of a currency illustrates the international or regional influence of the country.

Lastly, numerous jobs depend on cash. The production, issue, distribution and sorting of notes and coins are all labour-intensive activities.
102 The First Euros, by Antti Heinonen, Suomen Pankki and the European Central Bank, 2015

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May 17, 2018