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Political symbols, citizenship and communication

Albrecht Sonntag

Political symbols are an essential part of each polity's identity building process, they cristallise and underpin its overall legitimacy, but also take part in its permanent re-construction (Renan 1882, Anderson 1983). The European Union, driven by a need for stronger popular support and in an effort to enhance its legitimacy has itself engaged in creating official symbols (Theiler 2005, Bruter 2005), which have been solemnly given "constitutional status" in the Constitutional Treaty (art. I-8), but were discreetly ushered out from the Lisbon Treaty. While it would be wrong to claim that the EU's flag, its anthem, Europe day and the recently formulated motto have been complete failures in identity policy, it is important to recognise that these are all elite-drafted top-down creations (Hobsbawm 1983). What the EU lacks is non-official symbols which have emerged in a more spontaneous bottom-up process and which are felt to have strong emblematic salience for what the collectivity stands for: popular heroes and narratives, lieux de mémoire (Nora 1993) in the largest sense. On these latter type of symbols the nation-state seems to enjoy a full-fledged "emotional monopoly" (Sonntag 2006). The paper argues that the use of EU symbols inevitably raises the delicate and controversial issues of a common narrative and the EU's ultimate finality. Moreover, in today's overloaded communication environment, symbols need to be appropriated and carried by a significant bottom-up movement in order to become meaningful and avoid the automatic suspicion of 'spin' through 'branding'.

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