Between 1949 and 1955, the Council of Europe received over 150 unsolicited flag designs, each from keen individuals hoping to represent the unification it symbolised. I hope to write about the rejected flags of Europe.
Although an extremely specific piece of design, flags have the tendency to raise the heart rates of creatives. A beloved craft for its ability to distil a location and its history into graphic symbolism, it’s also very rare we see a new design. Denmark, for instance, holds the title of the oldest flag design, dating back to 1625, whereas the newest on record is held by Mauritania which received an update in 2017. Our very own in the United Kingdom is a symbol we’ve hoisted up, both unified and divided, since the Act of Union in 1801.
Despite often being regarded as a piece of history, as recently as 2006 Ted Kaye – secretary at the North American Vexillological Association (vexillography is the scientific and scholarly study of flags) – wrote and published Good Flag, Bad Flag, a primer for any hopeful vexillographer. Written around five specific rules, the title advocates for simplicity, “so simple that a child can draw it from memory,” and the use of meaningful symbolism in the designer’s choice of images, colours or patterns. Ted also warns designers away from using no more than two or three basic colours, and never any kind of lettering or seal. Lastly, each flag should be distinctive and “avoid duplicating other flags” but when not possible, the creative should utilise similarities “to show connections”.
I can’t look at the current European flag or judge its design quality without thinking of what the EU stands for in political, economic and cultural terms.
But in its popularity, the use of a circular star motif raised the question of ownership once it was finally chosen. As described in Jonas’ introduction, the European flag’s design is credited to Arsène Heitz, a former employee of the council’s postal service, but many others claim they’re owed a significant credit. From Salvador de Madariaga, a Spanish diplomat believing it’s his, through to Paul M. G. Levy, the director of the press and information service at the Council of Europe questioning the credit of his former colleague, disputers also include Hamburg-based lawyer Hanno F. Konopath – described by Jonas “as quite an ambivalent character” – whose questioning features in Rejected. Enclosing letters and sketches in attempts to prove his authorship, “I have been working on this wonderful task for many years, which I continue to take great pleasure in, as does everyone I talk to about it,” reads his letter, “and now I would like copyright to be recognised and protected just like any other.”
It’s a tough question when we ask who is the EU flag’s true designer. Yellow stars on a blue background, or stars arranged in a circle, have been submitted by different people and it’s hard – if not impossible – to attribute it to one person. In turn adding that truly it’s a group effort, and the result of a complex design process in which several private individuals, the institution Council of Europe, as well as the committee of European Ministers have been involved.
The exact authorship of the flag will remain a mystery – it was pushed through by ministers and tinkered with along the way. We will never know who designed the final draft. But, as a design element , it is strong – it shows all of the member states as equals, where the furthering of culture and trade and where humanitarian goals were achieved. God, why did we leave Europe.