When people think of the European Union, one very likely image to depict in the mind is the blue flag with twelve golden stars. Another conceptual postulate that may pop up is the euro coin, but with this text I will focus on the previous, the flag that we all recognize.
I see the European flag several times a day, working in the heart of the heart of Europe, in the European quarter of Brussels right by Place Lux, it cannot be avoided. The flag can be seen around the European Parliament, outside regional representations and on most doors that lead to offices that have to do with the European Union. I had never really pondered upon the origins of the flag, it has become something so ordinary, so I found a lecture by François Foret at the Université Libre de Bruxelles interesting and decided to share some thoughts with the readers of this blog.
Why does the union need a flag in the first place?
The initial and general need for a flag is a matter of historical necessity. A body, be it an institution, a community or state needs one to be legally and internationally recognized. In addition to recognition home and away, a flag is also a communicative resource, a tool to communicate to citizens. Adopting a flag is one of the first steps taken when founding a state and beginning the attempt of nation building.
The Council of Europe created the symbol we recognize in the European flag in 1955. It is now mainly used to symbolize the European Union (and still the CoE, but they have added a lower case “e” into their flag to avoid confusion). It was 1985 when the European Union, back then the European Economic Community, chose the symbol of the twelve stars in a circle. That the founder of the symbol is not the current user makes it a charismatic narrative and gives the symbol a reach beyond the European Union member states.
Why 12 stars? Why blue?
There are many interpretations of the symbol. A common idea is that the stars symbolize the founding countries and six more, similarly as the stars in the American flag represent the states. Some argue the flag underlines the European Union to be a Christian club, with the stars representing the 12 apostles and the blue the Virgin Mary.
The younger generation of Europeans, like myself, have less religious affiliations, and thus this interpretation sounds bizarre. The EU in my eyes is a secular union. The twelve stars can also represent the months of the year, the signs of the zodiac and the circle unity and continuity. No interpretation has been enforced officially, thus the symbol allows different views creating unity without consensus (as often is the case in the EU).
Strong state vs. weak state.
The postulate of weak state having a strong society and a strong state a weak society, can also be noticed in the use of the flag. Let’s take the example of the United Kingdom as a weak state, where the society is autonomous and the Union Jack can be seen all around town. The public has a monopoly of the symbol. On the contrary, in France where nation building is important, the Tricolore is mostly seen marking official buildings and not in the hands of the public in the same extent as in the UK. In a strong state the flag is regarded as sacred and there is no tradition of waving the flag.
A very clear example of a strong society is the USA, where you can see flags everywhere, and even more so in times of crises (for example after 9/11) when showing patriotism is higher than usual. The stars and stripes can be found practically anywhere. I for example, have a beach towel with the Star-Spangled Banner which would be unacceptable with the flag of my native Finland.
In Finland there are strict rules regarding the use of the flag, it is actually a law on it. For starters the flag may not touch the ground – ever. The blue cross on the white background needs to be a certain shade, the size must be 8 x 11 measurements, the times when the flag can be on the flag pole are strict, there is a right way of folding the flag, a right way of disposing an old, broken flag and you can even buy instruction guide books on the use of the flag. All this is monitored by the Ministry of the interior.
Now back to the European Union. The before mentioned postulate of strong state – weak society and vice versa cannot really be used for the EU (at least not yet), as both the “civil society” and the “state” are more on the weak side.
What does the flag then do for Europeans?
The flag can mark time and history– the European flag is used for example when the Presidency of the Council of the European Union is passed from one country to another. It marks territory, as in swaying by the borders of member states. However, in a way the flag represents more the absence of borders, being a symbol of free mobility and pictured on my driver’s license and my passport.
The European flag is well recognized around the continent, but few people have a strong identification or connections with it. The native flag comes first. A war is said to be one of the most powerful ways of identifying with a flag. So a war would be a way to get people to associate to the flag, but that is the opposite to the core values of the Union, and can evidently bring negative connotations.
The EU flag is more of a sign of the future and not of the past, at least when it comes to candidate countries where the flag is associated with positive traits such as democracy, hope and prosperity (maybe less with the economic and financial crises at hands). But is it important for the flag to be liked? Would it be more powerful if it were disliked?
An example taken up during the lecture was the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005. In rage against the Danish cartoonist, it wasn’t the Danish flag that was widely burnt in Muslim countries nor the European flag, but mostly the American flag, symbolizing the Western world. The true power of a symbol is shown by the counter influence it generates.
What the European flag says about European society is that it is not that powerful, at least yet. European citizens, or more the citizens of the European Union, think of the flag as the second in order, like they think of European identity as something that comes only after the national identity, if even then. The European flag and the reactions it brings can be swapped with European identity. Flags in general signify state, history, territory and social order as well as identification. Thus the flag and the opinions of the flag can be used to study the level of identification and evolution of the missing body of Europe – the European citizenship and the civil society of Europe.