Sunday, July 8, 2007

EU symbols and euro identity

A less-remarked piece of fallout from the emergency constitutional compromise at the recent Brussels summit is the ditching of the European flag and anthem from the treaty. Interested as I am in the cultivation of a European identity, I couldn’t help but see this move as troubling. 

It could just be my sensitive side overreacting, but it seems like a real step backwards for a continent that needs to do everything in its power to foment a cross-cultural identity: a common feeling of “Europeanness” would be a great asset when politicians need to explain the complex balance between national and European issues. This is something that the elites and well-educated already understand, but a majority of the less cosmopolitan masses do not feel European, and do not think any sacrifice should be made to an invisible bureaucracy of unelected Brusselcrats. We’ve heard this argument before, even at the elite level of course, and it’s not going anywhere soon. But it’s my feeling that symbols and propaganda (especially the newer sexier EU film) are important factors in the struggle to show that, say, Latvians and Spaniards are in this thing together.

Or maybe they’re not. Instead of embracing relatively obvious items like the flag and anthem (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which seems a happy enough selection), their abandonment bodes ill for cooperation in much more complicated European endeavors. It doesn’t matter if Beethoven is the ideal composor, or if the flag looks cool enough (doesn't it need more stars by now?). What matters is the effect of national symbols on an aspiring EU. Hans-Gert Pottering, the speaker of the European parliament, has stated how wonderful it was to hear Ode to Joy played when he visited the Israeli Knesset. Understandably, he finds it “particularly disappointing that the European symbols, not least the flag and anthem, are to be taken out of the treaty.” Are EU members going to be received in silence while the brass band blows up for other countries?

How important are national symbols, anyway? Would the US—a country built on multiculturalism—be the same place without the flag, the anthem, and the nebulous idea of ‘freedom,’ which we seem to have appropriated as our specialty? Obviously these symbols play an important role in national identity formation and recognition—not only for Americans but for foreigners (though the latter have lately appropriated other symbols for the US, such as the dollar sign or the bomb).

I just don’t understand how the EU can expect to make progress in winning over euroskeptics across the continent in such a context. Maybe it’s a doomed project anyway. Or maybe I should just be happy that the document was rescued at all. Honestly, the whole thing is so damn complicated that it's quite impossible to predict the future of the EU. But member states should be awarded big karma points just for trying! (Instead, they'll probably be throttled by the cruel hammer of history.)

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