Post 788: The European flag
For my swan-song I’ll supply the faithful with a tall tale of the sort that induced Mark to invite me on to his blog. I’m sure he would have enjoyed the mixture of verifiable truths, multiple ironies, and fuel for nested conspiracy theories.
Epi-prologue: the flag
It’s a good symbol. The ring of stars evokes an ideal of common values and aspirations, as in Schiller’s Ode to Joy: “Űber Sternen muẞ er wohnen”. The empty space it defines but does not enclose invites states and citizens to fill it with the meaning and praxis they choose. Unlike the Ode, picked as the European anthem, it is not impossibly élitist for amateur use (*).
The circle of stars is not standard heraldry. The one previous use I could find was the shortlived 13-star Betsy Ross flag of the American revolutionaries. This was replaced progressively by the rectangular arrangement of today, with one star for each state, as settled in 1818. There is no reason to think the Eurocrats were inspired by the Betsy Ross, or had even heard of it. So where did the 12-star European flag come from? It never corresponded to the number of members of any European institution at the times of adoption.
I tell the story in reverse chronological order, like the detective explaining the murder to the assembled suspects in the drawing-room of the snowbound country house. In honour of Lewis Carroll, whose world we are plainly living in, the sections are called “fits”.
Fit the fourth: the Bureaucrats’ conspiracy
In 1985, the European Council – the heads of government of the member states of the European Union – adopted this emblem as the flag of the Union. It had been proposed by the European Parliament in 1983. As a symbol, it’s fine and has enjoyed popular success: the flag flies from many town halls along with the national flag and maybe the regional one, it’s on road signs at borders, and so on.
Politically, it was and remains a bit awkward. The emblem is the same one adopted in 1955 by my old employer, the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Council!), which holds any copyright there still is but does not enforce it with any zeal. The Council, an intergovernmental organisation based in Strasbourg, has always had more member states than the EU, so town halls in Turkey and Russia can fly it too if they feel like it. I assume the EU looked at alternative designs but could not find one good enough. The quality of the design beat out the desire for a unique identity.
Here’s Resolution (55) 32 (pdf) of the Committee of Ministers of the CoE adopting the flag, as proposed by its Consultative (now Parliamentary) Assembly, a body made up of national MPs.
Where’s the conspiracy? Merely that as far as I can make out, none of the Eurocrats bothered to consult the peoples of Europe. In 1955 this would have been technically difficult, but not in 1983 and 1985. New Zealand held two referenda in 2015-2016 on a proposal to replace the Union Jack-plus- Southern Cross with a rather nice silver-leaf fern, but it lost. The European construction has always been an élite project seeking popular legitimacy ex post. But then the same goes for nation-states and their flags.
So where did the stars come from? The Resolution includes this professional b/s:
Against the blue sky of the Western world, the stars symbolise the peoples of Europe in the form of a circle, the sign of union. The number of stars is invariably twelve, the figure twelve being the symbol of perfection and entirety.
That’s not how they got there.
Fit the third: the Catholic conspiracy
The lead in designing a flag was taken by the MPs. They set up a committee chaired by the exiled liberal Spanish writer/diplomat Salvador de Madariaga – a good choice – , and did in fact ask around for ideas. A humble Alsatian worker in the mailroom called Arsène Heitz submitted no less than 21 designs, including the gold stars. Madariaga does not seem to have been a believer, though as a Spanish intellectual he was deeply versed in the religious culture of his country. Heitz was a believer: he even belonged to a Catholic lay order called the Miraculous Medal. Catholics of any degree of piety are familiar with the twelve stars forming a halo-crown for the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. The stars are particularly associated with the doctrine and cult of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed as a Catholic dogma as late as 1854. Here’s a stunning painting of her by Velazquez in the National Gallery in London: