The seriousness of swans

Observations on logos

John Major's "Rory the Lion" logo was appropriately lampooned for being half in, half out of Europe in 1992. Six years later, the infamous pizza star caused a diplomatic row with the Italians. And now we have the revelation that the latest British EU presidency logo - the slickly designed V formation of flying swans - bears a remarkable, if coincidental, similarity to the symbol used by the arch-Eurosceptic Bruges Group.

Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that this series of cock-ups is the result of a slapdash attitude at the Foreign Office and elsewhere. Quite the reverse. Choosing a logo is a deadly serious business that commands the attention of senior officials and ministers alike - and is the subject of heated internal debate, as the story of the latest offering illustrates.

Two years ago a diplomat in the EU section of the Foreign Office came up with an idea to save taxpayers' money and help deliver the low-cost, no-frills presidency ministers had requested. He would design the 2005 logo himself. The result of this Blue Peter-style operation was a square made up of four constituent squares, each containing one letter. The top two squares spelt "EU" and the bottom two "UK", ensuring that both horizontally and vertically the message read "EU/UK".

It was certainly simple, and even had a certain Britpop style. Its great advantage for many in Whitehall, however, was that it involved no expensive designers or agencies and cost the government absolutely nothing. The logo was duly approved at all levels of the machine and was on the verge of being sent off to be printed. Yet there was a problem - it had to be approved by the ministers who dealt with EU matters.

To say that strong feelings were expressed when these ministers met would be like saying that Jacques Chirac was mildly disappointed that London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. It was a spectacular firework display - and one of the most amusing events I witnessed in eight years at the centre of government.

The whole bargain-basement exercise was torn to shreds. One minister said the logo "looked just like a Battenberg cake" and would make us the laughing stock of Europe. Another claimed it was a snub to Britain's world-renowned design industry, while a colleague observed that the logo looked just like it read - "EUUK!" The game was up, so, after a hasty Design Council-led competition, the swans were airborne in what the Foreign Office website tells us is "an excellent metaphor of how the EU operates both through leadership and co-operation".

Perhaps our problems with logos spring from a desire to avoid giving ammunition to those states that remain to be convinced that the UK is a committed European partner. Yet while we tend to eschew overtly red, white and blue designs as overtly nationalist, our EU partners are rarely so constrained. In recent years the Luxembourgers have used their national colours, as have the Italians. The previous Irish presidency deployed what became known as "the exploding harp", and the French some years ago were unashamed in using the symbol of the Arc de Triomphe, a structure dedicated to the European conquests of Napoleon.

At least there is no correlation between the merits of any particular branding and the effectiveness of the presidency in question. In 2003 the Greeks possessed an elegant logo that was widely admired. Yet this was the same presidency which hosted the summit remembered as the "Carry On" council, after Tony Blair was booked into a hotel room with no hot water and Jack Straw arrived to find decorators still painting his bedroom walls.

So, as we look forward to what we are to receive from Austria in the first half of next year and the Finns after that, it is worth reflecting that this six-monthly circus would have gone under the now-doomed EU constitution. Perhaps we are better off with swans than a dodo.

Ed Owen is a freelance political consultant and was until May special adviser to Jack Straw

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