Europe’s Zero Euro Note: memento or money-grabber?

By Morgan Daval

What started as a celebratory concept, intended to embrace the diversity and splendour of the many European nations and their national landmarks, has now turned into an international affair. One question presents itself: should non-European countries be allowed to sell zero euro notes in a country that doesn’t even use the euro?

Officially issued in 1999, the euro is a relatively young currency compared to others such as the pound sterling and US dollar. Originally used in financial markets, the first euro coins and notes only started circulating in participating countries around 2002. It is now the official currency in 19 of the 27 EU member states. 

To avoid showing favouritism to one particular country, the 6 notes – ranging from €5 to €200 – are an ode to certain architectural styles such as Germanic Gothicism depicted on the €20 note and the Italian Renaissance on the €50 note. Although the notes do not portray European landmarks, the reverse side of euro coins features each issuing member country’s national heritage, such as Ireland’s Celtic harp and inscription of the word ‘éire’. 

Frenchman Robert Faille created an alternative, souvenir €0 note, bringing euro notes into the same realm as the unique national motif depicted on their coins. These are manufactured by Oberthur Fiduciary who print all other euro notes. Faille introduced his note to many European countries including Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Initially, many commemorated historically notable locations as well as influential figures throughout history, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. All souvenir notes also have a collection of European landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum and Manneken Pis on the reverse side. However, one can now find a €0 note in almost every European country, even those without the euro. 

Twitter users have questioned the ECB about their legitimacy, as these notes have genuine security features such as a watermark, UV ink and a hologram. However, they cannot be used for purchases since, as in the name, they have zero monetary value. Due to the impressive authentic replication of the euro note on the souvenirs, the ECB tweeted in February 2019 that manufacturers of souvenir banknotes such as the €0 note must comply with strict production rules or have a relevant NCB exemption.

Peter Schneider, who currently holds a license in Ireland for souvenir notes, affirms that the notes appeal to tourists as an innovative souvenir since they can be personalised to specific preferences. Like Peter’s, many souvenir companies caught wind of the success of the €0 notes and wanted to create their own. The enthusiasm has translated into a blossoming revenue stream, in an otherwise saturated souvenir market.   

In addition to being sold as a memento, the notes have kicked up a storm amongst numismatics; in fact, half of Faille’s 5000 originally released notes had already been sold off to collectors before official public release. The issuing of these notes triggered a great fascination and appreciation for them as a collector’s item, with some rarer notes fetching prices of up to £200 online. Faille himself suggests trying to gather notes of certain themes or from specific countries, presenting the notes as an assortment of collectable showpieces. 

Such comments beg the question of whether Faille’s intention for these notes was to serve the purpose of honouring prominent figures and locations of European history, or whether they are purely commercialised compilations to be sold to the highest bidder.

Certain political figures of the past have notes dedicated to them. For instance, Karl Marx’s image was printed onto a note in 2018 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birthday. The German city of Trier, Marx’s birthplace, has seen great success in the release of these notes, selling for €3 apiece. Contentious soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin have also been depicted on €0 notes. What once seemed like a souvenir celebrating Europe’s diverse architecture and achievement, is now being used to mark the lives of controversial political figures of the Soviet Union’s troubled past. A small handful of souvenir note designers do not seem to have taken into consideration the political consequences of depicting portraits of such oppressive leaders nor what suffering the celebration of their distressing history can cause for certain individuals. Focussing on maximising sales and profits rather than honouring the heritage of the EU, the merchants of these notes are glorifying the extreme hardship endured by many. Now little to do with the currency and establishment they are printed on, these notes are becoming a cog in the commercial engine of capitalism. 

In recent times, we have seen the release of the €0 note in hundreds of touristic shops and international attractions around the globe, expanding out of European states. A note celebrating the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth was issued in India. There is a €0 note of New York, Mount Fuji, Machu Pichu and Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer to mention a few. The euro notes, that have zero monetary value, are bizarrely becoming an international currency. 

In an interview conducted in 2017, Faille commented that he wanted to develop a new series of notes portraying a collection of worldwide sites such as UNESCO sites, with the entire 15 note collection to be priced at €100. There has been no news since about this venture; however, we have seen the release of many souvenir euro notes marking special occasions around the globe, namely the note dedicated to the Chinese New Year of the dog. We have seen multiple Chinese €0 notes in circulation, some depicting the controversial Mao Zedong. It is interesting to note that many Asian collectors are obsessed with these mementoes – amongst this audience it is clear there is a money-making market. 

At a period in which there have been many challenges to the cohesion of the European Union, the notes have a contrasting effect. On the one hand, these notes attempt to bring Europe together in celebration of diversity and cultural difference; but on the other, they portray a deep-rooted capitalistic image of the world we now live in. The notes have gone beyond the realms of the currency it represents, questioning further the reasoning behind them. But whether a depiction of national heritage or a collector’s item, the €0 note has taken Europe, and the rest of the world, by storm. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist. 

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