June 12, 2015

Endless Rows Over History

AFP/Scanpix
A commemorative coin to mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo is displayed during a ceremony held to unveil the 2.5-euro coin at the Royal Belgium Mint in Brussels on June 8, 2015.
A commemorative coin to mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo is displayed during a ceremony held to unveil the 2.5-euro coin at the Royal Belgium Mint in Brussels on June 8, 2015.

Who said that only Eastern Europe has rows about history? Or at least that such disputes aren’t a hallmark of Western Europe, where countries have left their painful past behind them?

When Belgium decided to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo by minting a special euro coin, it turned out the past wasn’t that remote, after all. Euro coin designs have to be approved by all 19 countries in the Eurozone (including Estonia), but France effectively vetoed the Belgian design.

But the Belgians didn’t back down quietly. Although they had to melt down the 180,000 two-euro pieces already produced, they resorted to a little-known clause to mint 2.5-euro and 10-euro coins that can be used only in Belgium, but which do not require the consent of the other Eurozone members.

The 2.5-euro coin depicts the setting of Battle of Waterloo and the positions of the armies before the battle. The 10-euro coin depicts Napoleon and two battle scenes –Wellington receiving word that the Prussian army is coming to his aid, and William of Orange being wounded in the shoulder.

Considering that Napoleon is regularly selected by his countrymen in polls as the most important French figure in history, the aggrieved reaction of the French to the Belgian euro coins is understandable. While the royal houses of the Britain, Belgium and Netherlands said they would send royal family members to the Waterloo battlefield on 18 June, France talked only of a “high representative.”

Before that, the French government called Belgium’s plan to mint two-euro Waterloo coins questionable at a time when European unity is in the balance. For some reason, European unity didn’t occur to France for quite some time when it was planning to sell Mistral ships to Russia. Or when then president Jacques Chirac did a poor job serving the Europe Constitution treaty to his people in 2005, culminating in a “no” at referendum and uncertainty in the EU for several years.

The euro coin row is interesting because many Western experts have been lecturing Eastern European countries such as Estonia for years about how they cling to history and should look to the future. Belgium’s decision to mint coins to mark the Battle of Waterloo and France’s reactions show that history can be just as inflammatory a subject in Western Europe.

What was the meaning of Waterloo for European history, anyway? For the Low Countries, Britain and the Prussians, it meant victory over Napoleon, who had triumphed in many previous battles. But Napoleon’s legacy is not that unambiguous. As we know, the Napoleonic code of law spread along with Napoleon’s armies, which meant more definite civil liberties and rights.

But after Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon, Europe entered a period of regress. The Concert of Europe, a system where large nations decided the future of smaller ones, claimed its place. Russia is one country that yearns for such a system today. Thus, Waterloo didn’t mean only victory but was followed by sufferings for many countries and nations.
This comment first aired on Retro FM’s Europe news on 12 June 2015.

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