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  • Meet the “New” Europeans: EU Accession and the Branding of Bulgaria
  • Nadia Kaneva (bio)

Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other former Eastern bloc nations, has recently turned to nation branding as a way to present a new face to the world. This paper examines how the Bulgarian government used nation branding in the context of preparations for accession to the European Union. The paper focuses more specifically on two government-commissioned commercials: one on occasion of the Treaty for Accession signed in 2005; the second commemorating the country’s formal accession on January 1, 2007. Adopting a perspective of cultural critique, the paper sets out to achieve three main goals. First, it briefly describes the institutional government framework that supported Bulgaria’s nation branding efforts. Second, it presents a historically informed close reading of the two commercials and explores their underlying ideological assumptions about Bulgarian nationhood in the post-Communist period. Finally, the paper draws conclusions about the social and political function of nation branding in contemporary Bulgaria and, by extension, in other former Communist countries.

Meet the “New” Europeans: EU Accession and the Branding of Bulgaria

April 25, 2005 marked the signing in Brussels of the Treaty of Accession that set the date for the admission of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union (EU). This historic act came ten years after the two countries had formally applied for membership in the Union and almost 16 years after the wave of “velvet revolutions” swept over Central and Eastern Europe.

On that momentous day, in the center of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, 616 blue balloons were released—one for each day that remained until the date of accession, January 1, 2007. However, while balloons were soaring above Sofia’s central square, coverage of the Treaty in the Western European media focused on problems with corruption, poverty, and ethnic minorities in Bulgaria and Romania, showing the mounting “enlargement fatigue” of the EU.1

Only a month later, on May 29, 2005, France rejected the EU Constitution and on June 2nd the Netherlands followed as well.2 The French and Dutch negative votes once again demonstrated a growing weariness among the “old” Europeans toward the idea of welcoming more “new” Europeans into the EU utopia. Recognizing this problem, one local television station in Bulgaria commented, “A long time needs to pass before they get to know us and stop being afraid of us. They will have to change and so will we.”3

Despite rising Euro-skepticism, the formal process of enlargement continued and on January 1, 2007 Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. Once again mass celebrations and elaborate ceremonies marked the occasion in both countries; the speeches of local politicians sounded notes of relief after a long and difficult preparation for accession.4 However, both Bulgaria and Romania joined the Union under a set of restrictions and unprecedented conditions including, “the power by the European Commission, the union’s executive, to suspend some of the rights that come with membership, like generous economic aid.”5

Thus, notwithstanding the elevated mood in Sofia and Bucharest, mutual acceptance—both formal and symbolic—between old and new Europeans remains problematic. This issue occupies a central place in the rhetoric of political elites across the European continent and continues to attract media attention. However, alongside the speeches of politicians and the endless media commentaries on this topic, another force has been summoned to influence the meeting of old and new Europeans—advertising and, more specifically, nation branding.

Bulgaria is one among many former Communist countries that turned to nation branding in order to present a new and more appealing national image in the context of EU enlargement. This paper examines the image Bulgaria seeks to put forward through nation branding and analyzes the implicit ideological frameworks that shape the construction of these messages. To address this set of issues, this paper looks at how the Bulgarian government has employed television commercials in an effort to re-brand the country both to Western European audiences and to its own citizens. Specifically, the paper focuses on two government-commissioned commercials: one, directed towards Western Europeans, aired in 2005 to commemorate the Treaty for Accession; the second...