The European Union Flag

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Technically, it’s not a flag.

It sure looks like one, doesn’t it? Well, it’s actually an emblem, suitable for displaying on a rectangular piece of cloth, according to the designer. So … that sounds like one, too, doesn’t it? Yes, except that the various members of the European Union were always concerned about losing their individual identities as nations and having their flags replaced. Which seems, honestly, exactly like what a union of member states ought to be doing, right? But in order to assuage such fears, the emblem is referred to as something that specifically is not a flag, so that can’t happen now.

Except that it pretty much has, even if it isn’t made out to be a big deal. The EU emblem is in flag form pretty much anywhere you want to look for it. It flies over the member countries’ capital cities; it flies over the United Nations; it shows up in sporting events; and everyone who isn’t a member country thinks of it as a flag, and everything’s fine.

And everything is fine with it, largely because there’s nothing that can be wrong with it. The entire emblem’s design and genesis is so softly rounded that there’s no danger of anyone being angered or offended by it. It means nothing and stands for nothing, really. Let’s look briefly at its history; it’s much older than you may have realized.

Designed for the Council of Europe after World War II, the emblem was the culmination of several attempts to make a symbol that wouldn’t offend any of the member countries. Previous attempts had included:

A red cross in a yellow circle on a blue background, which was rejected because Turkey, one of the fifteen member countries, objected to the cross as a de facto Christian symbol.

  • A giant green capital letter E on a white background, which was rejected originally because it was a giant red E, and, when the wind wasn’t blowing, it looked pretty much like a Communist flag; then later was rejected because it was a terrible idea, and looked terrible, and made everyone feel dumber just for having agreed to look at it.
  • A circle of eight linked white rings on a blue background, which was rejected for looking like too many other possible things, including the number zero or a chain.
  • A single yellow star on a blue background, which was rejected for basically being the existing flag of the Belgian Congo.
  • An abstract representation of the capital cities of the member nations on a blue background, as stars in their appropriate areas, with no country outlines, which was rejected for being a little too abstract.

Plus a number of others that were never even going to make it all the way to the rejection stage. But Paul Levy was walking through Brussels one day in 1955 and saw a halo of stars surrounding the head of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and suggested to Léon Marchal, the designer, that he propose a circle of fifteen stars for the emblem, or so the story goes; there are several variants of this origin circulating, not all of which can agree on who saw the statue.

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The blue background is primarily simply a compromise because no other major flag was using a predominantly blue background (although the United Nations flag is blue and some sites claim that “blue is … traditionally the color of the European continent”). There were originally fifteen stars in the circle, but Germany was concerned that if one of the stars represented the Saarland, the tiny, disputed strip of land between France and Germany, it would start to think of itself as an country and not part of Germany, and thus would never return like it was supposed to, as soon as it got sick of France.

As a consequence of this, if there were only fourteen stars, that meant that the Saarland wasn’t getting a star, and so they would veto the new proposal. Thirteen was straight out, since superstition was apparently still dominating world decisions. Twelve, however, was a number with so many possible meanings that it couldn’t possibly be taken poorly: if you didn’t like one interpretation of the twelve stars, you could come up with one you did like in short order.

Then, after all that, nobody even really used the emblem until over thirty years later, when the European Economic Community teamed up with the Council of Europe to start to evolve into what we think of as the European Union. But you can’t really call it a flag. That’s something we can all agree on.

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