I have written a number of times about Romania’s branding and I have seen comments posted in response suggesting that the good readers of Romania-Insider.com think I am talking only about the Ministry of Tourism’s apparent failure to sell the country as a desirable destination. I’m afraid that this interpretation fundamentally misses my point. The branding of a country is the responsibility of every public official, every private business person in every economic sector, every educationalist and every person active in the media…in fact pretty much everyone in the country.
For example, it is widely believed throughout the world that the United Kingdom has the best police force – the most effective, the most honest and the most helpful to visitors. All this is achieved without British policemen being armed. This very positive branding is maintained despite well documented links with criminal gangs in some areas, the taking of bribes from large media interests to illegally provide them with information on high-profile cases, the failure to investigate racist murders properly and the ‘fitting-up’ of innocent people with Irish accents during the IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain in the 1970s.
The United States is widely regarded as the world’s greatest democracy, indeed the guarantor of western democratic values across the world; in spite of the possibly fraudulent first election victory of Mr George W. Bush.
Branding and national stereotyping, whether positive or negative, can last a very long time and can endure in the face of many apparent upsets and contradictions.
I think it is fair to say that, in Western Europe at least, Romania’s current branding is very firmly in the negative column and this situation is not the fault of the Ministry of Tourism. In fact the work of the Ministry can be compared to trying to push a 10 ton rock up a mountain single-handed. Romania’s negative branding has been carefully nurtured since 1989 by most of those responsible and I can offer a few recent examples.
The fact that a man convicted of kidnapping can remain an MP in Romania, indeed his being allowed to stand for election while his case was pending, is seen as outrageous in Western Europe. Mr Becali is a popular hero for many in Romania and I can imagine that he would occupy the same position among the American Right for his robust response to having his car stolen. However it is a given in western democratic societies that a convicted felon may not hold a seat in Parliament and that this has happened on more than one occasion is astonishing to many people.
Very recently the German Minister of education resigned her position in the midst of a plagiarism scandal. They take these things very seriously in Western Europe and while these scandals have many roots and consequences in the battle for power that consumes all political systems, the public behavior of Annette Schavan is in sharp contrast to that of Victor Ponta, Romania’s Prime Minister, who remains in office with the same charge hanging over him. Both maintain their innocence but one, Ms Schavan, is perceived as having behaved honorably.
Mr Ponta’s transgression may seem piffling to his supporters but if he succeeds in becoming Romania’s representative at the EU’s top level he will carry the stigma of his plagiarism with him. To his colleagues, the leaders of Europe, Mr Ponta and by extension the country he represents, will be seen as untrustworthy.
The simple fact that Romania has taken up only a tiny fraction of the accession funds available, for whatever reason, is a clear signal to the EU and its foremost decision-makers that neither the Romanian government nor the Romanian business community is serious about improving the country’s physical, educational, commercial and professional infrastructures. An apparent refusal to build a modern economy is a significantly negative piece of self-branding and creates a perception that is very difficult to dispel over time.
The current investigations into the senior bank executives and businessmen who attempted to defraud the government, combined with the tax avoidance case against the previous Head of the Romania’s tax authority (whose deputy remains an international fugitive from justice), confirms the impression of a country in the grip of criminal conspiracies at every level.
The extraordinary incompetence exhibited by the USL government in 2012, both in the case of the Oltchim fiasco and the failed referendum on the impeachment of the President, combined with the war between the Prime Minister and the President, point to on-going political instability which no-one can or wishes to stop.
I could go on.
Romania is an important border for the European Union. She has a coastline that provides an access point for Asia and also Africa. Romania shares a border with Ukraine and, by extension, Russia. Romania operates a low wage economy in which millions of people struggle to get by every month and who look for extra income wherever they can. Romania is therefore an extremely vulnerable border.
The core element in branding, whether of a company, a person or a country, is the creation of trust. Do your friends and associates trust you? Do your clients believe in your products and services and your company’s ability to deliver them? Do your partners in international treaties believe that you can work with them to meet your obligations? Is Romania a credible policeman of the EU’s border?
Unfortunately Romania’s brand is currently a very negative one and we have seen in recent weeks how easy it is for right-wing groups in the UK to use Romania’s brand to try to win support for their campaign to leave the EU. We have seen, only last week, how easy it is for vested interests in Europe to immediately, without investigation and real evidence, hold Romania responsible for a growing crisis in the regulation of the food industry across the continent.
Crucially, Romania’s brand is weak among the decision makers of the European Union where the country’s Schengen status will be decided. There is no point in Mr Ponta pretending that the Schengen issue is regarded in isolation in Berlin, Amsterdam, London or Brussels. Governments there are looking at Romania’s all-too-evident general weaknesses and current vulnerability now and her clear unwillingness to improve in the medium term and, taking everything into consideration, there is unlikely to be good news anytime soon.
Denial of this truth is not a solution. Romania has to start doing the things, internally, that build trust abroad and it is everyone’s responsibility to do so. On branding, I hope that the Ministry of Tourism can now be absolved from blame.
By Ronnie Smith, Guest Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
(photo source: axa-schengen.com)