Sept. 1 (Bloomberg) -- The European Central Bank is using an image from Greek mythology to improve security on new euro banknotes, four people familiar with the design said, even as Greece’s near bankruptcy fuels a debt crisis that’s threatening the future of the common currency.
Europa, the Phoenician princess abducted by Zeus who gave the continent its name, will replace architectural images as the watermark on the new notes, which the ECB wants to start rolling out next year, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans aren’t public yet.
The Frankfurt-based ECB invited public relations companies to pitch for the contract to help present the new notes and dispel concern over the use of the image at a time when investors are questioning whether Greece can remain in the euro area, two of the people said.
Using an image that symbolizes the foundations and history of Europe and transcends national boundaries may reinforce the message of political leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the euro is a currency of unity. At the same time, Greece triggered the sovereign debt crisis that’s driven up borrowing costs for governments from Rome to Dublin, pushing at least five economies into recession and threatening to destroy the monetary union.
The ECB plans to make the designs public in November and issue the first new note, a 5 euro bill, in May, two of the people said.
“As we have announced already some time ago, work on the second generation of euro banknotes is ongoing,” ECB spokesman Niels Buenemann said yesterday. “Details will be communicated at a later stage.”
Central banks typically redesign their banknotes on a regular basis to improve security and prevent counterfeiting. Putting a face rather than a structure on the watermark may make it harder for forgers to produce fakes. The ECB has repeatedly delayed the redesign of euro banknotes, which were first introduced in 2002.
In the first half of this year, the ECB removed 251,000 fake banknotes from circulation, down from 310,000 notes withdrawn in the previous six-month period.
Current euro notes show windows, gateways and bridges from different eras in European architecture, both as the main pictures on the bills and in the watermarks.
The new notes will retain these symbols and be very similar to those in circulation other than the changed watermark, the people said. The colors of the notes will be slightly different and Europa will also show as a hologram on the silver marking on the right-hand side of each bill, one of the people said.
The map of Europe on the notes will reflect the enlarged European Union, according to information on the ECB’s website.
In Greek mythology, Europa, the beautiful daughter of Phoenician king Agenor and his queen Telephassa, was abducted by Zeus. Taking the form of a white bull, the king of the Greek gods seduced Europa and stole her away to the island of Crete.
Europa, whose moniker could be translated as “wide-gazing” or “far-seeing,” is already depicted on Greek two-euro coins and several commemorative pieces.
The ECB said in 2008 that it wanted to put the first notes of a second series into circulation on Jan. 1, 2011, and roll out the complete set over a period of several years.
The plan has been pushed back after the financial crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. morphed into a debt crisis, which has forced the ECB into uncharted policy territory. ECB President Mario Draghi may on Sept. 6 give details of a plan to buy government bonds to stem the crisis, a measure opposed by Germany’s Bundesbank.
Meanwhile, observers from the ECB, International Monetary Fund and European Commission return to Greece next week to continue their assessment of the country’s deficit-reduction progress. Without a positive review, Greece may not receive the next tranche of its bailout money and be forced to exit the monetary union it joined in 2001.
Greece’s influence on the euro and its physical form dates to before the currency was created.
In 1996, then Greek Finance Minister Yannos Papantoniou successfully pleaded for euro banknotes to feature the name “euro” in the Greek alphabet, overcoming German protests.
According to an account from Ireland’s Ruairi Quinn, then German Finance Minister Theo Waigel told Papantoniou that he’d had “enough trouble in Germany trying to sell this idea of giving up the mark, and now you want me to put funny letters on it as well.”
According to Quinn, Waigel added: “It’s all irrelevant, because you’re never going to qualify” anyway.
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