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European flag: symbol of a link or of an allegiance?

30 novembre, 2017
Hajnalka Vincze

At the mid-October EU summit, President Macron joined the so-called Declaration No. 52, ten years after the Lisbon Treaty was adopted and France decided not to sign the annexed Declaration on EU symbols.[1] If the new French president chose to reverse policy at this particular moment, it is primarily as a response to far-left leader Mélenchon’s recent call to ban the European flag from the Assemblée nationale (the Lower House of the Parliament). Whereas the Declaration is legally non-binding, the move is intended, in Emmanuel Macron’s words, to “assert the attachment” of France to the symbols of Europe. One point that seems to have been largely overlooked, is that the meaning of those symbols can be very different, depending on whether one refers to the French or English version of the text.

While in French the Declaration states that the flag, anthem, motto and the Euro are supposed to express the signatory countries’ “link” with the EU, its English form speaks of “allegiance” to the European Union. Link or allegiance: the distinction is anything but insignificant... The first supposes a relation between equal subjects, while the second implies voluntary subservience. Herein lies, surreptitiously and in a nutshell, all the 60-year long debate over the European integration’s intergovernmental or supranational character. In the light of the French President’s recently outlined vision, which remains purposefully vague on the border between national and European sovereignty, the difference in translation suddenly takes on a political dimension.

Admittedly, EU text versions that vary by language are not a complete novelty. From time to time, they have served as a recourse to conceal, in a subtle way, Member States’ diametrically opposed visions. The Declaration on European Identity, signed in 1973, is a case in point. The slight difference between the English and French versions reflects two irreconcilable understandings of transatlantic relations. For France, relations with America would not influence the pursuit of an independent European policy: “The close ties between the United States and Europe of the Nine (…) do not affect the determination of the Nine to establish themselves as a distinct and original entity.” The Brits, for their part, preferred to deny the very idea of ​​a possible clash between the two, stating that “These ties do not conflict with the determination of the Nine to establish themselves as a distinct and original entity.” The question remains open – as seen these days on such various topics as anti-Russia sanctions, North Korea, Iran or climate change.

The founding act of European defense was articulated around a similar mix-up. The placement of commas in the 1998 Franco-British Declaration of Saint-Malo subsequently fueled years of acrimonious debate. The stakes were high: seeing whether Europeans would have, or not, the right to make autonomous decisions without first obtaining NATO’s (the United States’) approval. It was understood at the time that before engaging in military action, the EU had to make sure that the Alliance did not intend to engage (it was called NATO’s right of first refusal). However, with the disappearance of commas in the English version, this pre-condition seemed to apply more generally to any defense-related EU decision-making. “The European Union should have appropriate structures to be able to make decisions and approve military actions when the Alliance as such is not engaged.” In French, two commas ensured that the two aspects remained carefully separated: “in order to be able to take decisions and, when the Alliance as such is not engaged, to approve military actions”). In the end, the French option prevailed: official texts routinely speak today, in both languages, of the two organizations’ respective “decision-making autonomy”.

Minor “mistranslations” can sometimes reveal divergent geopolitical approaches. In the case of EU Member States, the opposition is namely between a more Realpolitik-based and a more post-modernist current of thought. The problem was masterfully solved in the European Security Strategy, adopted by all EU governments in 2003. Compared to the French version which strongly underlined that “even in the era of globalization, geography maintains all its importance”, the English version seemed to take a more relativist stance, by simply acknowledging that “geography is still important.” This nuance is far from being innocent when it comes to defining policy priorities. Indeed, international relations ever since could be considered as a sobering testimony to what Robert D. Kaplan calls the “Revenge of Geography.”

Which brings us back directly to the present, and to President Macron. If the slight discordance between the French and English versions of the Declaration on EU symbols is worth to be mentioned, it is because it reflects two radically different options on how to belong to the European Union. Options between which the French president has so far preferred to blur the lines. Yet, former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine predicted that the moment would come when the choice can no longer be deferred: “Of two things one: either we accept to gradually merge into this entity because we believe that the European ambition prevails over all others or because we think that the European framework is now the only one that allows us to defend our interests. Or, considering that, with 9% of the votes in the Council, 9% of the Members of Parliament, one Commissioner out of 25, we will not be able to preserve positions and policies that we deem to be fundamental, we refuse to take this leap.” Either way, it is not “merely” a question of flags.


[1] French citizens had, in 2005, rejected by referendum the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe which then got renamed and reformatted, with minor changes, as the Treaty of Lisbon. The State-like symbols got removed from the main text and added as a simple Declaration, signed on a voluntary basis by 16 Member States. The symbols in question are the flag with a circle of twelve golden stars on a blue background, the anthem based on the ‘Ode to Joy’ from the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, the euro and the motto “United in diversity”. 


france, ue

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