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Last Updated: 9 May 2020


Strasbourg and Europe: when a city on the River Rhine calls for reconciliation of the peoples of Europe after the tragic Second World War. In this post, we’ll be discovering the European destiny of Strasbourg. We’ll find out why the beautiful capital of  Alsace was chosen as one of the EU’s capitals as well as a few anecdotic stories.

The European destiny of Strasbourg

“Here is a city that, more than others, was a victim of the stupidity of European nations who believed in fixing their problems with war, now it must be called upon to become a symbol of reconciliation and peace.” Ernest Bevin, United Kingdom’s Foreign Affairs Minister, 1949.

Ernest Bevin
Ernest Bevin

The end of the Second World War signalled that it was time for the reconstruction and reconciliation of the peoples of Europe.

Four years after the end of the Second World War, ten European States (Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden) signed the Statute of the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation founded on human rights, at St James’s Palace in London.

Lord Ernest Bevin, then United Kingdom’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the first to suggest making Strasbourg a symbol of European reconciliation. His proposition was based on choosing an average European city, and some perceived it to be a British manoeuvre designed to overshadow the central policies of the new initiative.

Nonetheless, the European institutions have successfully navigated through the decades and are not only a part of Strasbourg’s landscape, but also a part of Europe’s.

The European institutions in Strasbourg

Strasbourg is currently the seat of more than a dozen institutions and organisations, both European and international. Three of these – the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Council of Human Rights – have a strong international influence.

Their buildings are of monumental proportions (especially the Parliament Building) and have become emblematic for the city.

The European District in Strasbourg (by French Moments)
The European District in Strasbourg (by French Moments)

The district of European institutions is located in Strasbourg‘s north, on the water’s edge at the confluence of the Ill River and the Marne-Rhine Canal.

The Council of Europe

Council of Europe © Council of Europe - licence [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Council of Europe © Council of Europe – licence [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Council of Europe has its headquarters at the Palace of Europe, which was built in 1975 by Henri Bernard. It is an imposing quadrilateral made of pink sandstone, glass and metal. In front of its floating square are the flags of its 47 member States.

It is the oldest of the great European institutions established in Strasbourg after 1945, and held its first meeting in 1949 at the University Palace. It is not part of the European Union and is often confused with another institution – the European Council – which is part of the European Union.

It is a pan-European organisation, uniting 800 million citizens and 47 member States including France, Russia, Turkey, Switzerland and Norway.

Its two official languages are English and French.

In order to strengthen cohesion between peoples, the Council of Europe has created two official emblems (which have also been adopted by the European Union):

The European flag

Azure blue with a crown of twelve gold stars in its centre

European Flag
European Flag

Adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly in 1955, it allows all Europeans to identify with it in addition to their own national flag. The flag was adopted by the European Union in 1983.

The number of stars is permanently fixed at 12 and does not represent the number of member States of the EU.

The number symbolises perfection and plenitude, in the same way as the 12 months of the year or the 12 apostles.

Legend attributes the creation of the flag to a statue of the Virgin crowned with 12 stars, with the founding fathers of Europe in the 1950s being sensitive to religious values. It is interesting to note that the Council of Europe had offered the Cathedral of Strasbourg a stained glass window representing Virgin Mary to replace the one that was destroyed by the Allied bombings.

The stained-glass window in the chancel of Strasbourg Cathedral with the European flag © French Moments
The stained-glass window in the chancel with the European flag © French Moments

The European Anthem

The prelude to Ode to Joy of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th symphony was chosen as the European anthem in 1971 and was publicly presented on the Day of Europe on 9 May, 1972.

The European Parliament

European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments
European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments

One of the most powerful institutions in the European Union, the European Parliament represents the interests of some 446 million European citizens. It gathers 705 MEP.

Prior to the inauguration of the new building in 1999, the European Members of Parliament had their headquarters in the Chamber of the Palace of the Council of Europe, on the other side of the river. With the European Union expanding regularly, it was necessary to find a more spacious location for the European MPs and to respond to parliamentary demands (interpreting cabins, technologies associated with voting, offices, etc).

European Parliament Strasbourg Hemicycle © Diliff - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons
European Parliament Strasbourg Hemicycle © Diliff – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

A huge building!

The huge glass pavilion leaves no visitor unmoved. The building is an architectural, and above all technical, prowess. It was necessary to find the most adequate means of including a 750 seat Chamber (the largest in Europe), 1,133 offices, work spaces and relaxation areas, as well as adjacent administrative services. These complex constraints were carried out by the architecture firm Studio Europe, which delivered the building in 1999.

European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments
European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments

The symbolic of the European Parliament in Strasbourg

From the Ill River, the Parliament Building can be seen along a monumental glass façade which seems to symbolise the spirit of transparency of the European democracy. From the other side, the building’s facade is completely different, and for many, it oddly resembles the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome. Two large geometric figures are visible:

  • the ellipse (the tower, at 72 metres high and 100 metres in diameter) that contains the circle (the Chamber), and
  • the circle that contains the ellipse.

This allegory of tensions between the circle and the ellipse illustrates the confrontation and the alliance in the life of a democracy.

The building of the European Parliament was named “Louise-Weiss”, in honour of its first president.

The European Parliament: Strasbourg or Brussels?

Much has been written about the location of the Parliament’s headquarters:

  • The plenary sessions take place in Strasbourg,
  • while some additional meetings are held in Brussels and
  • its general Secretariat in Luxembourg!

Lobby grounds put pressure for the European Parliament to move definitely and permanently to Brussels.

However, in December 1992, the European Council in Edinburgh confirmed Strasbourg as the official seat for the Parliament. This was made possible by the mutual insistence of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl.

The Human Rights Palace

Human Rights Palace, Strasbourg © French Moments
Human Rights Palace, Strasbourg © French Moments

The Human Rights Palace is a futuristic building by architect Richard Rogers and was inaugurated in 1998. It stands parallel to the right bank of the Ill River, at the point of its convergence with the Marne-Rhine Canal.

The symbol of the Human Rights Palace in Strasbourg

Its architect wanted the Palace to be considered as a symbol, and not simply a monument.

The nature of the business conducted here implies that:

  • it must be anything but intimidating, and
  • it must be welcoming and human.

The building’s façade must reinforce the sense of justice by symbolising “the balance of justice”.

For the architect, the Palace adopts “resolutely contemporary and symbolic lines which associate law to the principle of transparency”.

Not to be confused with…

The official name of the supranational institution housed within the Palace is the “European Court of Human Rights”. Therefore it should not to be confused with the European Union’s Court of Justice which has its headquarters in Luxembourg.

The European Court of Human Right was created in Strasbourg in 1959. It serves as a relevant jurisdictional body of the Council of Europe.

The institution’s mission is to ensure compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

In 2007 alone, more than 100,000 cases were examined before the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Union

The European Union [EU] is a political and economic union of 27 member-states in Europe. It stretches from the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta to the Arctic Pole in Sweden and Finland.

However, even though the EU has been through a series of extensive enlargements over the last 50 years, the Union does not include the whole continent of Europe, as some countries are still found outside the EU’s borders: Switzerland, Norway, European Russia, Iceland, and more recently the United Kingdom.

Its area represents just over half of that of Australia.

European flags in Strasbourg © French Moments
European flags in Strasbourg © French Moments

The Founding Member-states

France became a founding-member of this historic entity in 1957, when the European Community was instituted.

Today every town-hall and many public and official buildings hang both French and European flags. Along with Germany, France is one of the powerful European countries which give an important impetus to European affairs.

The EU: an economic giant

The EU comprises 447 million inhabitants, making it the largest democratic zone in the world.

If considered as a single economy, the 27 member-states form the first economic power, well before the United States, China and Japan.

Since 1999, most of the states (with the notorious exception of Sweden, Denmark and a number of Central and Eastern countries) have joined the eurozone. This abandon of monetary sovereignty is manifested by the use of a single currency across the EU: the euro currency.

Other successes of the EU include the development of a single market (since 1993), the free movement of people (Schengen Agreement), goods, services and capital.

The capitals of Europe

To make sure that this union work efficiently, a series of important institutions have been put in place over the last 60 years for its governance. Some are based in:

  • Brussels (the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Council),
  • Luxembourg (the Court of Justice of the European Union),
  • Strasbourg (the European Parliament), or
  • Frankfurt-am-Main (the European Central Bank).

The 27 member-states of the EU

The 27 member-states (with the year when they join the EU) are:

  • Austria (1995),
  • Belgium (1957),
  • Bulgaria (2007),
  • Croatia (2013),
  • Cyprus (2004),
  • Czech Republic (2004),
  • Denmark (1973),
  • Estonia (2004),
  • Finland (1995),
  • France (1957),
  • Germany (1957),
  • Greece (1981),
  • Hungary (2004),
  • Ireland (1973),
  • Italy (1957),
  • Latvia (2004),
  • Lithuania (2004),
  • Luxembourg (1957),
  • Malta (2004),
  • the Netherlands (1957),
  • Poland (2004),
  • Portugal (1986),
  • Romania (2007),
  • Slovakia (2004),
  • Slovenia (2004),
  • Spain (1986),
  • Sweden (2004).
  • The United Kingdom was a member of the EU from 1973 to 2020.

The Symbols of the European Union

European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments
European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments
  • The anthem of the Union (based on the ‘Ode to Joy’ from the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven).
  • The flag of the Union (a circle of twelve golden stars on a blue background).
  • The motto of the Union (‘United in diversity’ – ‘Unie dans la diversité’).
  • The currency of the Union (the euro in 18 member-states).
  • Europe day (celebrated on 9 May throughout the Union)

To find out more about the European Union, visit the official EU website.

Australia and the European Union

According to the EU delegation in Australia, approximately 45% of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s international reserves is held in euro (the same proportion as for the US dollar).

  • The EU is the second major destination for Australian foreign investment.
  • Australia is the 19th largest partner in two-way goods trade and the 10th in services trade.
  • In 2008, the EU was Australia’s largest partner for merchandise and service trading with two-way trade.

Find out more about the relationship between Australia and the European Union.

English-French Vocabulary

(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin and (v) for verbs

  • anthem = hymne (m)
  • Austria = Autriche (f)
  • Belgium = Belgique (f)
  • Brussels = Bruxelles
  • Bulgaria = Bulgarie (f)
  • citizen = citoyen (m) / citoyenne (f)
  • Council of Europe = Conseil de l’Europe (m)
  • Council of the European Union = Conseil européen (m)
  • country = pays (m)
  • Croatia = Croatie (f)
  • Cyprus = Chypre (f)
  • Czech Republic = République Tchèque (f)
  • Day of Europe = Journée de l’Europe (f)
  • Denmark = Danemark (m)
  • England = Angleterre (f)
  • Estonia = Estonie (f)
  • EU = UE (f)
  • euro = euro (m)
  • Europe = Europe
  • Europe Day = Journée de l’Europe (f)
  • European Central Bank = Banque Centrale Européenne (f)
  • European Commission = Commission Européenne (f)
  • European Council of Human Rights = Cour Européenne des Droits de l’Homme (f)
  • European Court of Justice = Cour de Justice européenne (f)
  • European institutions = institutions européennes (f)
  • European Parliament = Parlement Européen (m)
  • European Union = Union européenne (f)
  • flag = drapeau (m)
  • Frankfurt = Francfort
  • Foreign Affairs Minister = ministre des Affaires étrangères (m,f)
  • France = France (f)
  • Germany = Allemagne (f)
  • Greece = Grèce (f)
  • headquarters = siège (m)
  • Human’s rights = droits de l’Homme (m)
  • Hungary = Hongrie (f)
  • institution = institution (f)
  • Ireland = Irlande (f)
  • Italy = Italie (f)
  • Latvia = Lettonie (f)
  • Lithuania = Lituanie (f)
  • Luxembourg = Luxembourg (m)
  • Malta = Malte (f)
  • member-state = état-membre (m)
  • motto = devise (f)
  • nation = nation (f)
  • The Netherlands = Pays-Bas (m)
  • Parliamentary Assembly = assemblée parlementaire (f)
  • peace = paix (f)
  • peoples of Europe = peuples d’Europe
  • Poland = Pologne (f)
  • Portugal = Portugal (m)
  • réconciliation = réconciliation (f)
  • reconstruction = reconstruction (f)
  • Romania = Roumanie (f)
  • Schengen Agreement = Convention de Schengen (f)
  • Second World War = Deuxième Guerre Mondiale (f)
  • single currency = monnaie unique (f)
  • single market = marché unique (m)
  • Slovakia = Slovaquie (f)
  • Slovenia = Slovénie (f)
  • Spain = Espagne (f)
  • state = état (m)
  • Sweden = Suède (f)
  • The United Kingdom = Royaume-Uni (m)
  • treaty = traité (m)
  • war = guerre (f)

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About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of Discovery Courses and books about France.

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