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Picture Atlas > Symbols 


Flag of Europe
Flag of Europe
Source: Audiovisual Library © European Commission 2005

Picture Analysis
The European flag was developed as a European emblem in the early fifties at the instigation of the Council of Europe: The flag was not officially adopted by the European Parliament until 11.4.1983 (cf. Diem 1995). It shows twelve golden stars on a blue background. The number twelve functions as a symbol of perfection. The stars are archetypal symbols of fraternity - in contrast to the sun, a favoured sign of imperial power - and they represent the merging of constitutional democracies; the blue, a symbol of sky and sea, represents the almost infinite longing for peace. The official commentary of the Council of Europe describes the flag thus: "Against the blue sky of the Western world, the stars represent the peoples of Europe in a circle, the sign of unity. The number of the stars is immutably fixed at twelve, this number representing perfection or completeness (...). As the twelve signs of the zodiac embody the whole universe, so the twelve golden stars represent all the peoples of Europe, including those who today cannot yet take part in the building of Europe in unity and peace" (quoted from Diem 1995:416).

It is clear who the people are who according to this commentary can take no part in the building of Europe, namely, those who were exposed to Soviet influence. If the flag of Europe as an emblem seems then to be a symbolic act during the Cold War, it is understandable why the original design of Duncan Sandys, the son-in-law of Winston Churchill, was quickly rejected: This showed a red "E" on a white background, which was changed into a green "E" as early as August 1948 at a conference of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. This symbolism was considered too simple, and the idea quickly won the day that a letter sign alone "was unable to exert enough emotional binding power" (ibid.).

We shall leave aside the question of whether the circle of stars on the blue background is basically a different matter. It is noteworthy nevertheless that "the archetype of the golden circle of stars reminds us of the picture out of John`s Apocalpse directed at eternal perfection: 'And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars' (Book of Revelations, 12:1, cited by Diem, 417) Also if, as Diem maintains, the European Commission in passing the resolution might not have been aware that the golden circle of stars was a symbol from Christian mythology, one would still hardly consider the choice of precisely this symbol to be a coincidence: It appears rather to express that exclusivity that regularly crops up when the boundaries of EU-Europe are being discussed. As the example of the official flag shows, European unity is obviously still hardly thinkable without fencing off an outside of some kind.

Literature: Peter Diem: Die Symbole Oesterreichs (The Symbols of Austria). Vienna 1995.

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The Picture Atlas is an outcome of the project ICONCLASH. Collective Icons and Democratic Governance in Europe

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