It's hard to imagine that the order of the colourful national flags of NATO's members moving harmoniously in the Belgian breeze could be the cause of lengthy, sometimes emotional debate.
But every Sunday at midnight, the flags are moved respectively one position further around the semi-circular row of flagpoles in front of the SHAPE headquarters building, so that no nation's symbol is seen to be last in the order of precedence.
The first rotation system was introduced in 1951 by General Eisenhower, the first SACEUR who decided that SHAPE should fly the flag of the host nation on the front flagpole and thereafter the flags of the other nations alphabetically in French, this being based on the method used at the United Nations. At that time, the rotation was conducted daily in the hope that this would guarantee equality.
Yet soon after the initial flag-raising ceremony, the Netherlands successfully objected to being called the "Pays-Bas”, and as required by its name in English, moved to be between Luxembourg and Norvège.
In 1953, the SHAPE legal advisor observed "Grande Bretagne” was not the correct French expression for the United Kingdom. So the Union Jack was to move to "R” for "Royaume Uni”. Additionally, he objected to the case of the Netherlands and the flag was sent off to its French term position again.
A circle – and a rotation system respectively – has neither a beginning nor an end, and should guarantee harmony. Nevertheless, in 1959, the Turkish national military representative observed that his country was "last” in the order. Therefore he suggested the adoption of the order used by NATO Headquarters at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, where the English names were used, the host nation was not granted a special position, and there was no system of rotation. But a tradition directed by the first SACEUR was not to be given up lightly and so the sequence remained the same.
When France chose to leave the Military Command Structure in 1966, and SHAPE moved to Mons, Belgium in 1967, it was decided to keep the system of flag rotation. Though the order of the national flags' display has been questioned time and again it has not been changed. To this day, the colours of new member states are arranged in the order of the French alphabet.