‘The view I am taking here is that the portrayal can be convincing regardless of whether such a thing has ever been seen or whether or not it is credible…’ – Erich Auerbach, Dante, Poet of the Secular World (1929)
On 1 January, Croatians entered the latest EU-mandated experiment in whether monetary ‘portrayal can be convincing’, when they substituted their national currency, the kuna, for the euro, becoming the first member-state to do so since Lithuania in 2015. Like all EU states other than Denmark, Croatia formally accepted the obligation to enter the eurozone with its accession as the Union’s 28th – and still most recent – member in 2013. Its relatively prompt adoption of the currency contrasts with the persistent euro-scepticism of countries such as Sweden, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which continue to maintain their own currencies despite being much older members of the EU. This is largely attributable to the unflagging enthusiasm for Brussels emanating from the centre-right government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and his party the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ; Hrvatska demokratska zajednica). Under Plenković, the HDZ has refashioned itself as a Christian Democratic party of the sort that is increasingly rare in the epoch of ascendant right-wing populism in Europe and beyond.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, visited Zagreb to sanctify Croatia’s definitive embrace of the euro. (She and Plenković pointedly paid for their coffees with them). Such political fanfare has not been a panacea to apprehension about the new currency regime; Croatian citizens are well-acquainted with the contortions and consternations that the euro can involve. Most real estate transactions and the lion’s share of the tourism industry – the dynamo of Croatia’s economy – have long been conducted in euros, while the kuna has effectively been pegged to the euro since the latter’s introduction in 2002. The Greek crisis of 2009, rooted in the financial and policy constraints entailed by the Eurozone, is a more tangible memory in the Balkans than in more affluent EU member-states to the west. Admission to the Eurozone has nevertheless been broadly welcomed, especially by local political and economic elites, as proof positive that Croatia has reached the final stop on its staggered voyage to ‘Europe’. In light of the euro’s chequered recent past, the near-total absence of domestic opposition to its adoption has been remarkable. The decision to invite Croatia into the Schengen area of passport-free travel, taken in December 2022, only added to the sense that Europe was finally here, rather than beyond the horizon in Ljubljana, Trieste or Vienna. Buoyed by the virtuosity of Croatia’s star player Luka Modrić, who led the Vatreni to the semi-final of the World Cup in Qatar in December, the public mood in Osijek, Rijeka, Split and Zagreb is remarkably sanguine.
Like all currency, the euro is a crucible for political-symbolic allegories and alchemies. While bills, from five euros up, are uniform across the Eurozone, specie – one, two, five, ten, twenty and fifty euro cent and one and two euro coins – are specific to each member-state, even as they circulate freely throughout the zone and beyond. So: the obverse face of fifty euro cents in Austria depicts Vienna’s iconic Secession building; one and two euro coins in Cyprus display the idol of Pomos, a cross-shaped artefact from ca. 3000 BCE; a two euro coin in Slovenia features a portrait of the national poet, France Prešeren (1800–49); and so on. Ideologically, euro coins integrate the historical and cultural specificity of each constituent nation-state into the universalizing project of the Union, enshrining the dubious conceit that national identities – however problematically imagined and invented – can persevere and thrive in the solvent of EU membership. The delicate selection of which national icons to mint, ranging from historical heroes to material culture, necessarily addresses both domestic and international publics. Euro coins must effectively abbreviate national cultures in a set of recognizable images while also embodying a deracinated, bureaucratized Brussels liberalism.
In the summer of 2021, as part of the lead-up to Croatia’s admission to the Eurozone, Plenković announced the symbols that would receive the mint’s sanction: the Croatian chequerboard (šahovnica) pattern, a key component of the national coat-of-arms; a map of Croatia; a pine marten; the inventor Nikola Tesla; and the Medieval Glagolitic Croatian alphabet. A competition to determine the final design of each symbol was announced, to be judged by a committee of art historians, bankers and sundry public figures. The winning designs were presented to an applauding audience in February 2022, but controversy quickly usurped ceremony. In light of the struggle between Serbia and Croatia to monopolize the legacy of Nikola Tesla, a degree of dyspepsia over the inventor’s star turn on Croatia’s ten, twenty and fifty cent coins was expected. But contention came too from an unanticipated quarter. Only three days after the official unveiling of the victorious designs, illustrator Stjepan Pranjković withdrew his winning image of a pine marten, the eponymous kuna that lent its name to Croatia’s former currency, after Iain Leach, a Scottish photographer for National Geographic, pointed out that Pranjković’s design clearly plagiarized one of his photographs.
The embarrassment of Pranjković’s deception called into question Croatia’s European aspirations generally. Anxieties of incomplete and insufficient Europeanness, which, as Maria Todorova has emphasized, haunt the Balkans at large, lurked in the scandal’s shadows. The process of minting Croatia’s European credentials had been tainted by failed mimesis. Even worse, it was stolen from a European source (leaving aside Brexit-related ambiguities of geopolitical identity). If the Croatian euro coin was a knock-off, might not Croatia’s entry into the Eurozone and Schengen be similarly plagiaristic, inauthentic, fake?
This commotion distracted from reckoning with the weightier, more sinister political history compacted in the image of the pine marten: a legacy of the fascist Independent State of Croatia, the Nazi comprador regime that ruled both Croatia and today’s Bosnia during World War II. The kuna was first introduced as a currency by the fascist Ustaše in 1941, and remained in circulation until the end of the war. Like many emblems of the fascist era, the kuna was resurrected during the 1990s, in the wake of Croatia’s secession from socialist Yugoslavia and its war of independence against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army.
The reintroduction of the kuna did arouse opposition at the time on account of its dark provenance. Ivo Škrabalo of the Croatian Social Liberal Party, for instance, lobbied strongly against its adoption: ‘If we’ve rejected the dinar as Yugoslav money, then we must also reject the kuna as Ustaša money, since neither “Yu” nor “U” are needed in Croatia at this point in time.’ (‘Ako smo odbacili dinar kao jugoslavenski novac, odbacimo i kunu kao ustaški, jer Hrvatskoj u ovom trenutku ne trebaju ni “YU” ni “U”.’) Škrabalo and like-minded MPs proposed that the Croatian crown (kruna) replace the Croatian dinar, but they were outvoted by the right-wing parliamentary majority. In 1994, the kuna was restored. It would last longer this time, 28 years rather than a mere four, and daily use has resulted in collective amnesia about its origin. Even now, as kunas rapidly exit circulation, the pine marten on Croatia’s one euro coin is an unmistakable material afterlife of the fascism of the 1940s. But this presents no obstacle to Croatia’s geopolitical aspirations: as Giorgia Meloni and the Fratelli d’Italia have recently demonstrated in Italy, few things are less controversially European these days than fascist afterlives.
Meanwhile, the denizens of Zagreb, my adopted hometown, negotiate the quotidian dilemmas and exasperations of the transition from the kuna to the euro with a bricoleur’s blend of pragmatism, cynicism and humour. Queues grow long at bakeries and farmers’ markets as customers exploit the final opportunity to pay with the former currency by purchasing staples with hoards of long-neglected coins. Cashiers’ brows furrow with new calculations. There are reports of customers attempting to purchase chewing gum with 500 euro bills; others are immediately nostalgic for the kuna. At my local market, an elderly customer asks me how I’m handling ‘our battle with the euro’ before winking and handing me a chocolate shaped like a euro coin. Even among the tricks and traps of mimesis that Europeanization involves, grappling with a new currency can occasionally offer sweet satisfactions.
Read on: Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Why the Euro Divides Europe’, NLR 95.