In Hoc Signo Vinces. Eurosigns in the City Scenery of Brussels



In Hoc Signo Vinces. Eurosigns in the City Scenery of Brussels
In Hoc Signo Vinces. Eurosigns in
the City Scenery of Brussels
Riitta Oittinen
KTHC - Knowledge, Technology, Human Capital
Riitta Oittinen, Dept. of Social Science History, University of Helsinki
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The special issue on Cultural Diversity collects a selection of papers presented at the multidisciplinary
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In Hoc Signo Vinces. Eurosigns in the City Scenery of Brussels
The paper analyses the individual meanings and the overall impact of European Union related representations (below, eurosigns) in the city scenery of Brussels. Eurosigns
means business signs, advertisements, logos, hoardings, window displays, and
information campaign material that make use of at least one of the institutional symbols
of the European Union as a signifier. Eurosigns are ubiquitous in Brussels. They range
from the official, hegemonic branding of the EU institutions to the quaint charm of hand
painted signs of artisans and small entrepreneurs. Examples of grass root design include
e.g. Night shop Euro-Bangla and Halal-Food-€uro-Pizza. The study of eurosigns in
Brussels sheds light on questions about the hybrid nature of European citizenship, the
redefinition of national identity and ”elective belonging”. It also suggests future
scenarios and potential contents for the image of Europe.
Keywords: Identity, Europe, EU, Urban History, Signboards
JEL classification: M, M3, M37, D21, Z13
The article ”In Hoc Signo Vinces. Eurosigns in the City Scenery of Brussels” first
appeared in “Media and Urban Space. Understanding, Investigating and Approaching
Mediacity” edited by Frank Eckardt, 2007, and is published by kind permission of
Frank & Timme GmbH, Verlag für wissenschaftliche Literatur, Berlin.
Address for correspondence:
Riitta Oittinen
Dept. of Social Science History
University of Helsinki
P.O. Box 54
E-mail: [email protected]
Riitta Oittinen, Dept. of Social Science History, University of Helsinki
In Hoc Signo Vinces1. Eurosigns in the City Scenery of Brussels
[the European flag] is the symbol not only of the European Union but also of
Europe’s unity and identity in a wider sense. The circle of gold stars represents
solidarity and harmony between the peoples of Europe” (Portal Europa.
Gateway to the European Union).2
1. Introduction
The identity and image of Europe are extensively debated in official and unofficial,
academic and artistic forums. The diverse eurorepresentations that divide between Us
and the Other figure in our everyday discourse. Researchers’ interest in these issues
will grow, too, as universities and other players – including the European
Commission – increase funding for research on Europeanness and the European
Union (see e.g. Jansen (ed.), 1999). The breadth of such research is growing as well.
Interdisciplinary research on e.g, city space, town planning, and media has recently
entered the fray. Image and identity become intertwined with questions of migration,
cultural and economic diversity, and racism.
My article contributes to this field by analysing the individual meanings and
the overall impact of EU -related representations (below, eurosigns) in the city
scenery of Brussels. With eurosigns I mean business signs, advertisements, logos,
hoardings, window displays, and information campaign material that make use of at
least one of the institutional symbols of the European Union as a signifier.3
A eurosign must include at least one of the following: a modification of the
blue flag of European union with its twelve golden stars (the eurostars), the map of
Europe with EU member states highlighted, the attribute “eur(o)” or the !-sign (for
history see Siebert, no year), or some other visual element (semi)officially endorsed
by the EU (e.g., the barcode flag or logo).
Eurosigns are ubiquitous in Brussels. They range from the official, hegemonic
branding of the EU institutions to the quaint charm of hand painted signs of artisans
and small entrepreneurs. Both the official and private use of eurosigns tap into the
resources of the EU as a superbrand (see van Ham 2001; Brøndberg 2005) but the
”By this sign you will conquer” or ”In this sign you shall conquer”. The article ”In
Hoc Signo Vinces. Eurosigns in the City Scenery of Brussels” first appeared in
Media and Urban Space. Understanding, Investigating and Approaching Mediacity
edited by Frank Eckardt, 2007, and is published by kind permission of Frank &
Timme GmbH, Verlag für wissenschaftliche Literatur, Berlin.
The history of the flag goes back to 1955.
Europe and the EU are used as overlapping concepts by politicians, journalists, and
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
unofficial narratives are neither as carefully branded nor as effectively disseminated
as official PR-material for the European Union. Still, the mixed group of
entrepreneurs selling computers, food, jewellery, shoes and trips to other continents
under the word or sign of “euro” or some visual modification of the official EUflag has truly set its mark on the urban landscape. In contrast, I will not discuss here
eurosigns of associations, lobbying organisations, or large companies.
The methodology of my study draws on histories “from below”, urban studies
and the ethnographic tradition. Ethnography involves direct observations of real time
mechanisms in action. As a mode of research it is rooted in firsthand experience and
can be characterised as in situ monitoring. This approach is rather uncommon in
European studies (see Koelen, van der et al., 2006). I would call my approach modern
urban archaeology, too, because it characterises the interdisciplinary nature of my
attempt to put together a mosaic of urban values. This approach addresses questions
concerning how people fashion their environments to create meanings about who and
where they are in the world, and how, in the process, they communicate feelings of
belonging and attachment (on “geo-ethnography” see Till 2005, p. 11).4
This article is part of my wider project (Histories, Images and EUropeans) about
the image of Europe, and branding EU and Brussels – with the special reference to
popularising history. Some of the pictures of this project have been used in a Finnish
guide book Tervetuloa Belgiaan (2006). More can be seen as a slideshow Eurosigns
in Brussels and in the forthcoming anthropological film “Wroom, merde et vlan!”
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
I use pictures of eurosigns as source material to dissect the concept of Europe, and to
raise questions about mediated space, identity politics and supranational image
making. The emergent image of Europe is strongly influenced by the unifying
iconography of the EU, and the shared overall context of Brussels as the capital of
Europe, but also by many other diversifying tendencies arising from its heterogenous
composition and cultural niches. The heterogeneity of Brussels as a city reflects, both
in degree and kind, the heterogeneity of Europe as a whole. Therefore, a study of
eurosigns in Brussels sheds light on questions about the hybrid nature of European
citizenship, the redefinition of national identity and ”elective belonging” (Savage et.
al 2005). It also suggests future scenarios and potential contents for the image of
Europe. This should give something to think about for city-marketing and city
branding, which are flavours of the day on the image building front.
Sections 2 (Getting Streetwise) and 3 (Brussels of Districts) discuss Brussels as
the context, and section 4 (Branding EU from above – and Sideways) summarises
aspects of the European Commission’s branding and image campaigns. The analysis
of street-level signs takes place in section 5 (Grass Root Designers in Action). Two
concepts of branding are useful for understanding eurosigns. Section 5 uses a softer
concept of branding that is more attuned to the impact of brands on feelings,
emotions and the like, and section 6 (Conclusion) briefly discusses a harder concept
of branding for the modern corporation. I will argue that the softer concept is
CARegionaism and Internationalism in the Heart of Europe (by Ilkka Ruohonen &
Riitta Oittinen).
appropriate for the analysis of eurosigns used by small companies close to the street
level, because little investment is required for using eurosigns, and they are not part
of a high-flying corporate strategy. They are interesting as evidence of cultural values
and strategies rather than as generators of economic value.
On the other hand, a deeper analysis of the Commission’s branding efforts
should modify the harder, business-oriented concept to fit a non-profit supranational
entity that is larger than many corporations, and that, like businesses, would like to
create appropriable value through branding. This paper does not attempt to shed light
on the governance of EU branding but, through parallels with street-level use of
eurosigns, I hope to offer some insight into what I consider to be the limits of its
2. Getting Streetwise
A few words on how I started spotting eurosigns. I made a more permannent move
from Helsinki to Brussels about five years ago, at the turn of the millenium. In
Brussels I am, to quote Bronislaw Malinowski, a “marginal native”, someone who is
both on the inside and the outside (see Lähteenmäki, 2007). My position somewhere
between a native and a tourist affects my making sense of the environment. Besides
going to museums and cultural events, I started to photograph the visual scenery and
statements of the city. The richness of the street scenery pointed out both
shortcomings and advantages in museums (see Campbell 2006), and I do not deny
that my flanerie has some aesthetising qualities to it but I certainly would not define
myself as a “gentleman stroller”.
As so many other Nordic newcomers, I found the local approach to the built
environment both carefree and creative. The ways of taking control of space that
startled me included reckless driving, totally self-regarding walking in groups, the
most inventive DIY constructions and decorations, the filling up of space with posters
and paintings, and the like. Brussels is a combination of the distractively creative and
the destructively creative. Its corner shops, cafeterias, call centres and other
semipublic meeting spaces with their signs, advertisements, displays and decorations
brought me back memories from Asia, Africa, the United States and Eastern Europe.
They also brought alive whole epochs: the time of Belgian colonialism, the collapse
of the British and Ottoman Empires, the age of emancipation and independence
struggles, the birth of nations and the disappearance of almost whole peoples, the
legacy of regional conflicts, the organised immigration of workers and the
unexpected arrival of their families, the Soviet era and, more markedly, the arrival of
post-communist entrepreneurship. Many of even the older periods are still
surprisingly present in Brussels, if you care to notice them, and the attendant
demographic fluxes mark the population of the city.
Brussels is rarely static, and the watchful eye must stare, yet proceed to record
thousands of images (see Patrick 2002). If you do not carry a camera, you are always
likely to miss a shot forever. For example, I never got to photograph the Eurodisco or
the Eurosolarium. They are gone but others with the same name are bound to appear
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
only to disappear again. Other images are fleeting: the graffiti stating that ”eurocrats
drive the cost of housing sky-high” did not stay there for long. Such expressions of
opinion never make it to the fancy and esthetical books on architecture that are
popular in Belgium. My idea was to photograph precisely those aspects of Brussels
that remain mainly undocumented. Very soon I noticed how EU and Europe kept
cropping up as a constant theme, and I started to systematically make notes of and to
photograph eurosigns in their original environment.
Despite the old saw that a picture paints a thousand words, pictures hide and
omit information as well. This makes the use of pictures in research a fascinating
subject. Supported by several methodological paradigms, the camera has been an
almost mandatory element of the tool kit for research for several generations of
ethnographers (Pink 2005, 49). On the other hand, the mainstream of the social
sciences has privileged the written word above all else. Many social scientists and
historians – excluding e.g., art historians – have even had the tendency to overlook or
ignore the visual. Images have served as decorative or illustrative elements rather
than as supplementary data, let alone as independent objects of study. The sad fact is
that there is often neither space nor money for using visual material in social science
publications, although the emergence of “visual studies” has changed the situation to
a degree.
There has been a strong tradition of street photography that provides, in
principle, material for research. That may change. The decline of street photography
is lamented in a 1999 essay by the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer. After
traveling in the U.S., Meyer noticed ”the disappearance almost everywhere of any
downtown life. Those parts of the city had become populated mostly by parking lots
and empty streets, with whatever was left of ’life’ taking place inside tall buildings.
What used to be a bustling environment around commerce, had now been displaced
towards the ’shopping mall’ located in the suburbs. ’Street life’ changed from being
in a public-city -space to that of a private-corporate -one, the mall” (Meyer 1999,
quoted by Patrick 2002). Meyer adds that in most of Western Europe it is safer to
walk about with a camera than in the Americas.5 These two things typical of the
U.S.A. definitely not apply to Brussels-Capital Region; each of its 19 communities
has a downtown of sorts, bustling with commerce and action that spread onto the
sidewalks and even the roads. Though I usually avoid photographing unknown
people, it is not rare for strangers to ask to be photographed. Even my real objects,
the eurosigns, have sparked off discussions with locals.
There are, of course, easier ways of gauging euroenthusiasm than street
photography. Even a glance at the Brussels telephone catalogue gives a rough idea of
its scope. There are hundreds of companies and associations with names
”eur(o)pean”. This gives scarcely an idea, however, of the size, visual
communications strategy, functions, or neighbourhood of a company. Only in situ
can one record how multifarious are the ways in which a night shop, market or its
cafetaria communicates its business idea to passers-by. Usually many textual and
visual cues are used. To take an example from my neighbourhood, there is Mr. Chand
Prem Kapoor, who has several businesses. His laundry is owned by “Kapoor &
sons”, and decorated with the flag of India and a picture of an elephant. Still, the
shopwindow also displays the eurostars. One of Mr. Kapoor’s shops is branded as
“Alimentation general” (general food store) and more specifically, a Viennese
bakery. The window names it also as “Mannu croissant”, and, this time, it has the
Belgian and EU flags together with the elephant logo. It is essentially a cafeteria, and
it also sells samosas. Some of Mr. Kapoor’s shops cater more to an African clientele,
as is the custom of many Indian and Pakistani entrepreneurs who have adopted a
business model developed in Eastern Africa (or, with variations, in Surinam or the
Caribbean), from where at least some of the shopkeepers originate, too. Another
example of the mismatch between the name and the purpose of the business is a fast
food joint “Tasty Corner: Los Angeles –New York – Tokyo”. It offers “Saveurs de
Monde – Word’s (sic) Flavours”, and has added two relatively large EU-flag tapes
below the text. Inside the restaurant, one notices a large, pink circle of eurostars that
Meyer (1999) asks why Europeans have not made as much of street photography as
they could, given that the Europeans have ampler opportunities for it. He continues
that “one line of thinking is that this tradition has been conceptually exhausted.
Another is that such imagery does not sell very easily, it isn’t decorative enough I
would venture to guess, and therefore is discouraged as not sellable. A third
possibility has to do with what is being published these days and therefore might
have the possibility to generate income. In reality there is a close relationship
between the decline of ‘street photography’ with the downward spiral that has been
experienced in the photographic marketplace during the late nineties by documentary
photographers or photojournalists.”
matches the overall colour scheme. The menu, though, consists essentially of
Lebanese fare and Belgian lunch sandwich favourites, and the staff and clientele alike
include many immigrants.
3. A Brussels of Districts
(--) the capital of Europe is less European than Berlin and more like Africa
and Asia, more Third World and therefore less clear-cut, less comprehensible
and less orderly than other European cities (van Istendael 2006, p. 99).
In terms of inhabitants (ca. 1 000 000), Brussels is a comparatively small capital, but
it offers endless material to a researcher of a “Europe of the regions”. To begin with,
what is here called Brussels is in administrative terms Brussels-Capital Region,
which consists of 19 independent municipalities, including the City of Brussels in its
centre. (Brussels normally means the capital Region unless it is specifically used to
refer to Brussels City). Brussels is bilingual, and all street names and traffic signs are
always in standard French and Dutch but very many other languages, as well as
dialects of French and Dutch – and mixtures of these – can be heard and seen on the
The cultural diversity of Brussels makes its presence felt at every step. Tourist
information and officials routinely underscore the cosmopolitan nature of Brussels,
because it is one of the most international cities in Europe. Roughly a third of its
inhabitants are foreign nationals. Corijn et al. (2004, p. 82) have pointed out that the
share of foreigners is even higher if one includes naturalised immigrants (52 246
naturalisations between 1987 and 1996). According to the census of 2004, the largest
groups of foreigners originate from Morocco (41 987), France (39 138), Italy (27
953), Spain (20 428) and Portugal (15 958), followed by Turkey (11 595) and the UK
(9230). Owing to its colonial history, there is a large group from DR Congo (7300)
(Population census of 1.1.2004).
All in all more than 100 nationalities live in the city, and more than 40 % of the
households are culturally mixed and multilingual. If illegal immigrants and shortterm visitors working in Brussels were included, the figures would be still higher.
Eurolines buses connect Tallin with Tangier, Warsow with Ouarzazate, and La
Coruna with Lviv via Brussels. The Eurostar links London, Paris, Lille and Brussels
and the company can take you to over ”100 places across Europe”. In most of the
ethnic neighbourhoods many nationalities live together (Corijn et. al 2004, p. 83).
The city is full of contrasts large and small. Brussels-Capital Region is one of
the richest regions in the European Union, and the presence of the EU institutions
undoubtedly increases the average per capita income of the inhabitants of Region.6
Still, almost 40 % of Brussels residents live in deprived neighbourhoods (Corijn et al.
The tax revenues of the Federal State and the Regions have not grown in proportion
because EU officials are exempt from national income tax. The Belgian wealth tax
regime is famous for its generosity to property owners.
2004, p. 78). The poorest commune in Belgium used to be the tiny but most densely
populated Saint-Josse-ten-Noode/Sint-Joost-ten-Node in the centre of Brussels. At
one extreme, there are the (il)legal immigrants and the unemployed, at the other, the
wealthy diplomats, eurocrats and employees of multinational corporations. Brussels
is home to the Council of Ministers of the EU, much of the European Commission,
and it is the seat of the European Parliament and the NATO headquarters. This
Europe of “Upstairs, Downstairs” manifests itself in choices of place of residence,
schools, entertainment and means of travel. Oases of exotic internationalism are
reserved to the wealthier clients: Asian furniture for a Colonial Lifestyle, food in
restaurants like Multi-Culti or Ethnic Foods (taste of natural world). This style of
supranational marketing is not very prominent, though.
On the other hand, though eurosigns can be found all over Europe and
Belgium, Brussels overflows with them.7 The arrival at Zaventem airport gives a first
taste. Coca Cola vending machines sport an image of Manneken Pis – the emblem of
Brussels – with a halo of eurostars hovering above his head. The airport has
purchased a statue of a bare-breasted woman brandishing the !-sign and flying the
colours of Belgium and Europe. Large panels wish travellers “Welcome to Brussels –
Heart of Europe” at a point where the visitor probably only wishes an end to the
interminable slug towards the exit. All routes out of the airport carry signs with
European messages and playful symbolism. The tourist may end up at a hotel by the
name of Euroflat, Eurostars, Eurovillage, Residence Europ, Europarthotel,
Eurosquare Residence or Europa. The longer term visitor is helped by real estate
agents such as Euro Domus, Eurorent or one of the numerous agents with eurostars in
their sign. With bad luck, the visitor’s hotel is being renovated or scaffolded by
Eurofacade, !uroscaff, EuroNeuf (“rehabilitation international”) or Euronet. No
worry. If one has attended Auto Ecole Européenne or comparable – although, mind
you, sixty percent of Belgians now fail their first driving ability road test – a car hired
by Eurocar can be tanked with Eurosuper fuel on the way to Europharma to buy
earplugs. Afterwards, it is time to visit the Portuguese Pub CEE (Communauté
Economique Européenne) for a Belgian Stella Artois beer – also known in the US
and UK beverage trades as one of the eurolagers – or Snack !uropa. Guidance on the
road is provided by street signs, some embellished with both the Belgian and EU
flags. I think that by now you’ve got the big picture of this eclectic, multicultural sign
The picture collection of the author (see details of the Eurospotter -team at the end
of this article). At the beguinning of the year 2007 there were first hand
pictures/observations from Belgium (e.g. Eurosleep, Europa-drinks), Bulgaria (e.g.
Euro mini market, Euromöbel), Denmark (Euroman and Eurowoman -magazines),
Estonia (e.g. Eurokamin, Euro bar & cafe), Finland (e.g. Euro-Oral; Eurotar;
Eurokone), France (Eurokebab), Germany (e.g. Euro-Asia Imbiss, das Eurocafe,
Euradöner), Hungary (e.g. Euroskin), Latvia (e.g. Euroaptieka), Luxembourg (e.g.
Euromusic, Eurbureau – Computer shop), Moldova (Eurospalat), Nicaragua (Euro
Hotel), the Netherlands (Eurotoilet, Europa supermarket), and Slovenia
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
It is the combined repetition of and variations on the eurotheme that make the subject
interesting. When a large number of pictures are compared, both common patterns
and distinct trends start appearing. At this stage, I have hundreds of photographs on
the theme, and new ones turn up almost daily. Only a small selection of the pictures
can be included in this book. Before looking at eurosigns in small and medium-sized
shops and enterprises, let us take a brief look at the identity and image campaigns of
the EU. That helps to put “eurosigns in the small” into sharper relief.
4. Branding the EU from above – and Sideways
Brand A brand is a mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible, symbolised
in a trademark, which, if managed properly, creates value and influence
(Brandcareers - glossary).
Ultimately, Europe will rise or fall on this issue of identity. And as Europeans
grapple with the question of who they are, the deep, powerful forces of
business, politics, and culture will probably play a more important role than
all the bureaucrats in Brussels ever will (Rossant, Business Week Online
Both the branding of EU that takes place in Brussels and the branding of Brussels as
the capital of Europe leave their marks on the town (Oittinen 2007a). To start with
the latter, the general problem with branding cities is that they are very diverse
products that can be difficult to fit neatly into a marketing campaign. Even if one can
fit a city in a number of campaigns, branding can be difficult to manage and sustain
in the long run (Jansson & Power 2006, p. 6). However hard the authorities try,
creating an image for the City of Brussels or Brussels-Capital Region – it is not
always clear what is being branded – is particularly difficult because of the capital’s
dual function. As the capital of Belgium, Brussels stands for the state and its people
(or the Flemish and Walloon peoples, depending on whom you ask). Brussels has to
project national power, symbolize the nation and bear the burden of its history. At the
same time, Brussels is associated with many real or supposed characteristics of the
European Union. Brussels has become a synonym of EU bureaucracy and democratic
deficiency. Some of the local actions of the EU, such as large-scale architectural
projects mauling the cityscape, tarnish the image of the city, even if the buildings of
the Institutions serve as huge advertising boards for world-embracing EU projects,
say, against racism or for the free movement of labour. In practice, Brussels has been
more effective in increasing its image as a fun place in the eyes of its residents – not
outsiders. It does so by organising or supporting a large number of popular events
that, in addition to their ennobling qualities, provide a jolly occasion to go out on
One constant worry for the Eurocracy is the negative image of the European
Union.8 In 2001 the then President of the Commission, Romano Prodi, and the
Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt invited a group of (dominantly male)
intellectuals to discuss the needs and functions of a European capital and how
Brussels could best express them.9 The brainstorming group included the Dutch
starchitect Rem Koolhaas, who is busy with commercial and cultural projects
throughout the world. His contribution serves as a good illustration of the vagaries of
eurobranding. The best-known visual outcome of the group’s work, was the barcode
flag designed by Koolhaas. It takes elements of each member states flag and makes a
fabric out of them: the stripes symbolise the sum of EU cultural identities. The flag
caused irritation and amusement already at its launching in 2001. In the year 2004,
the barcode symbol was adapted to include the ten new member states. Since then,
Austria adopted the barcode as an official logo of its EU-presidency in 2006 and uses
it in e.g. bags, pencils, and neck straps. I have seen Commission staff and EU
journalists carrying barcode paraphernalia but I have never seen the barcode logo in
any unofficial capacity on the streets of Brussels. On the other hand, the British
quality newspaper the Guardian, which is by no means anti-European, was inspired
by the logo project to set up a countercompetition (The Guardian 22.5.2002). The
A seminar on Connecting with the Citizens of Europe. How to Close the
Communication Gap? arranged at the European Parliament in January 2006 is just an
The group included twelve people: artists, businessmen, journalists and researchers.
They produced a report called Brussels, Capital of Europe (2001). Part of the
material presented at the exhibition Image of Europe dates to this project.
winning flag designs in the Guardian’s competition symbolised EU bureaucracy,
Fortress Europe and disharmony among member states.
Koolhaas was again commissioned to campaign for a new European image by
the Dutch presidency and the European Commission together in 2004. The stated aim
was to reduce the “iconographic deficit” of usual representations of the EU. His
Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and the British think tank Foreign
Policy Center created a travelling exhibition called Image of Europe (Brussels 2004,
Munich 2004-05, Rotterdam 2005, Vienna 2006). The exhibition included imaginary
propaganda posters (Whatever the Weather – We Only Reach Welfare Together) and
an immense cut-and-paste collage of European history and images of Europe. It was
put on show in a barcode-striped circus tent in Brussels’s Euro-quarter. One of the
aims of the exhibition was ”to show the way in which Europe is represented through
words and symbols.” Its manyfold agenda was also to explore contrasting perceptions
by confronting “Europeans” with the views of “non-Europeans“. The stated intention
of the organisers was to bring Europe closer to its citizens despite their scepticism
and doubts. Koolhaas himself told that he wanted to “find a way of talking about
Europe that appeals to those who watch Big Brother.”10
Judging by its reception, the exhibition was found to be both problematic and
confusing. One of the stated aims of the project was to reach the “roots level debate
on the EU”. It is reasonable to ask how far one has to be from the “roots level” in
order to hold any hope that a campaign machinated from the top and engineered by a
private architectural practice can succeed, let alone be credible, in the stated purpose.
Further, the contents of the exhibition were only available in English; this only made
it difficult for many people – including many Belgians – to understand its (well
meaning/ironic) message of a “EU for all” (cf. Oittinen 2005, pp. 269-279 & Oittinen
To make the long story short: it seems that the Brussels exhibition ended up as
a travesty of its original purpose. The exhibition raised questions about the motives
and skills of architects presenting themselves simultaneously not only as artistic
entrepreneurs but also as media critics, historians, sociologists, visionaries, identity
builders, best friends of the top politicians and the man of the streets. The exhibition
probably increased the value of the Rem Koolhaas brand more than the EU brand.
In addition to exhibitions and campaigns, the EU institutions try to improve
their image by providing free material in their information offices. There are several
of these in Brussels, too. They offer colouring books, comic strips and booklets on
EU issues. As noted above, the EU buildings don, both on the inside and the outside,
posters popularising the EU. Unity in diversity -type of messages are offered to
people in those parts of the city where they are mainly preaching to the converted.
One notable poster features a lighthouse projecting the eurostars, and another features
a hungry African draped in a euroflag. A more recent effort is the poster that I
observed in the European Parliament. It features a photograph of a washing basin
The material about the exhibition were at the homepage of the Netherland’s EU
presidency (visited 3.5.2005). It does not exist anymore. Some of the
official speeches can still be found here: (visited 1.1.2007)
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
with about twenty different toothbrushes and mugs. It stands for the new .eu -Internet
domain: “457 Millionen Europäer – eine Adresse”.
Design competitions have been organised for young people to get them excited
over the EU. The competition to create a logo celebrating the 50th anniversary of the
Rome treaty was won by Szymon Skrzypczak from Poland. His entry was based on
typographical variation in the text “Tögethé! since 1957”. At the award ceremony,
Vice-President Margot Wallström, who is in charge of communication in the
Commission, said: “The winning logo represents the diversity and vigour of Europe
and at the same time it underlines the desired unity and solidarity of our continent.
Member States, regional and local authorities are invited to use the logo for their
events too” (Logo Competition, 2006). I have not yet seen this logo or the barcode,
which are more difficult to replicate and thus more proprietary than established
eurosigns, in unauthorized commercial use on the streets of Brussels.
Art and design students were invited by an EU information campaign to
compete in 2006 to create a poster on “Breaking stereotypes”. The winning proposals
where put on display for the public at large in 2006–2007 on the glass fence
surrounding the Commission’s Berlaymont building. The barcode clearly appeals to
design professionals. Three of the winners made use of the theme that was already
familiar from Koolhaas’ flag (Breaking Stereotypes, 2006).
The same fence is also used for a permanent display that tells the history of the
Euro-quarter (Bruxelles, Quartier Européen, no year). Through its omissions, the
narrative evinces a strategy of not biting the bullet. First, the story of the
neighbourhood leaves out things that are invidious to the image of Belgium or the
EU, such as the atrocious colonial policy of King Leopold II in Congo. Parc du
Cinquantenaire, the visually striking background to both the old and the new
Commission headquarters, was funded by plundering the resources of Congo (see
Hochschild 1999). The sumptuous arcade of the park has been regularly used as a
background to TV reports from Brussels. There is also a gap of many years in the
narrative of the display concerning the Berlaymont building itself, because the
Commission evidently does not wish to draw the visitors attention to the recurrent
delays, spiralling costs, poor governance by the Belgian state, and possible
irregularities during the renovation of the asbestos-ridden building between 1991–
2004, when it had to remain closed while the Commission paid the rent.
The souvenir and heritage industries also bolster a positive take on Brussels
and the EU, because tacky memorabilia borrow from the EUs branding efforts. For
example, the statue of Manneken Pis has been clad in a vest made of the EU flag, and
images of the event are reproduced in tourist postcards and websites for tourists
(Oittinen 2007b; see also de Saint-Denis 2006). The range of goods decorated with
the EU flag ranges from golf balls to pocket calculators. In addition to mainstream
products reproducing official EU iconography, more marginal goods popularising
and even satirising the EU are sold in tourist traps. There is a humorous postcard
commenting on the unwieldy procedures of the European Parliament and a poster
parodying the sex antics of the citizens of the member states: ”Do it like a European”
offers a hefty doze of stereotypes.
The impossibility of controlling impressions of the EU is proven, for example,
by artistic parodies of the EU. One of them is a fake poster campaign (2005–2006)
promoting a non-existent Hollywood blockbuster movie by self-acclaimed con-artists
Eva and Franco Mattes. Thousands of posters trumpeting ”United We Stand – Europe
has a mission” – with the EU-flag in the centre and headlining Penelope Cruz and
Ewan McGregor in star roles – hit the streets of Berlin, Barcelona, New York,
Bangalore, and Brussels, even the entrance of the European Parliament. This was the
first stage of a long-term communication strategy that began in late 2005 and
gradually covered the whole media spectrum all over Europe. The artists describe
their campaign in following terms on their Internet site:
United We Stand touches on themes of subliminal art, cultural propaganda and
European identity, clashing against expectations and exploding cultural
stereotypes. ”Everyone remembers Peter Fonda in Easy Rider” says Eva
Mattes ”nobody is surprised by a leather jacket with an American flag, while
the same jacket with a European flag would only make you laugh”. Why is the
patriotic iconography of the USA commonly accepted, while when it is applied
to Europe it completely changes its meaning and actually becomes
”’United We Stand’. Mattes’fake movie hits the streets of your city...and your
mind”, (visited
1.1.2007). Compare e.g. to Thomas Kvam’s film Eurobeing, Unge kunstneres
samfund 2006. Available at: (visited 1.1.2007). See also the Yes
On a different note, people with less money and media skills express their sentiments
by posting stickers with declarations on the lines of ”Eurobureaucrats – adapt or go
home”, ”No to Euroturkistan” or ”Belgian – and proud of it”.12
5. Grass Root Designers in Action
(--) a concept like Europe is constructed in processes of contention and
bargaining. The images of Europe do not exist as a natural phenomenon but
are discursively shaped (Stråth 2002).
It is easy to adopt EU iconography for private use, because although there are
restrictive rules against the commercial use of the European flag, no one seems to
enforce them, and the signs are in practice non-proprietary and free of use.13 (Note,
though, that the Commission is more particular with new logos.14) The reproduction
of the euro currency symbol is permitted by the European Central Bank ”provided
that the source is acknowledged”. The economics of the signs has a bearing on how
to analyse their use in branding. I will make use of two approaches to branding
below. There is a softer concept of branding that is directed more to the non-profit
sector, which seldom has full control of the thing that it wants to brand: there is no
product to brand in the strict sense. There is also a harder concept for businesses that
have a tighter grip on the products or services. The soft concept is more centred on
images and associations, and vaguer on the management of the process by which
men’s Captain Euro -hijink, the yes men, Available at: (visited 1.1.2007).
I have seen very few instances of graffiti or writing on the wall commenting on the
EU in Brussels. Thomas Pröls brought to my knowledge the habit of certain NGOs to
modify the EU logo, which would be an interesting topic of reseach.
In principle, authorisation should be sought for the use of the flag: ”Each case will
be examined individually to ascertain whether it satisfies the criteria set out above.
This will be unlikely in a commercial context if the European emblem is used in
conjunction with a company's own logo, name or trade mark.” (visited 6.2.2007).
The conditions of use for e.g., the 50th anniversary logo contain more explicit
clauses than those of the flag. The use of the logo is free of charge, permission is not
needed, and the rules are not clear on legal consequences of violations, except that
these are construed under Belgian Law: ”The use should not be linked to commercial
purposes (article 3.3).” ”Third parties, within the meaning of paragraph 3, are not
authorised to use the logo in any commercial or non-profitable context which would
lead the public to believe that the user or the Author benefits from the authorisation
of the European Commission or any other European institution or body (article 4).”
Available at (Visited 6.2.2007).
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2007
branding is to create value; the hard concept emphasises business reengineering and
value for brand investments (for a summary of a harder concept, see section 6 below).
The softer concept is evident in e.g., Peter van Ham (2005), a scholar of the
branding of states, who stresses that branding goes beyond PR and marketing. It tries
to transform products and services as well as places into something more by giving
them an emotional dimension with which people can identify. Branding touches those
parts of the human psyche which rational arguments just cannot reach (van Ham
2005, p. 122). It is my contention that, in many ways, the softer approach fits the EU
related aspects of the branding efforts of small enterprises in Brussels better than a
business oriented model of branding. This is because the use of EU signs does not
figure in expensive and calculated corporate branding strategies in the cases that I
discuss below. There is some economic logic to their use, but often in ways that are
linked to identity and emotions.
Although the EU is under constant criticism, and its attempts to improve its
image are even publicly ridiculed, many want to jump on the b(r)andwagon. There
are those who believe that the EU brand offers them additional value, at least
compared to the (typically low) costs of using it. There is no single explanation to the
europopularity of eurosigns. It is probably needless to say that many meanings
overlap. This is indicated by the fact that eurobranding and -images can be found in
almost all economic sectors: building service and maintenance, cleaning, transport
and freight services, education, food and catering, accounting, hairdressing, beauty
and cosmetics, finance, clothing and apparel, construction, communications and
entertainment (including gambling and adult entertainment or europorn).
Typically a eurosign is only an element in a broader visual or textual field.
Small entrepreneurs working under a eurosign or window sticker project multiple
identities, personal or family histories, and ethnic or cultural belonging. Quite often
there is, in addition to a eurosign, a sign that reminds of the old country of the owner.
Sometimes the signs – or plain texts in the window – are unique and handmade
pieces; in some cases a touch of “euro” has just been added with a sticker. Sometimes
the look is professional but it does happen that there are a few stars too few or too
many. The colours vary. It is also possible that Norway or Switzerland figure in a
map that is meant to show EU member states only.
The temporal aspect of the eurosigns is evident both in signs that have fallen
behind times as well as those that are meant to usher in a new era for the business.
There are signs that are visibly old and tattered, a throwback to the 1950s. The more
dilapidated eurosigns – such as that of Night Shop Euro Common or PUB CEE –
have not kept up with institutional change. The European Economic Community
(EEC/CEE), aka the Common Market, changed its name into the European
Community with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. There are also signs using maps of
Europe that have not been updated with new member states after a certain point (e.g.,
1995 or 2004). Sometimes a eurosign indicates the revamping of the business. The
first word in the sign of “Boulangerie euro-baguette” is clearly older, and uses
different typography and colours, than the euro-baguette part. In the visually richest
signs and windows the whole package is used: Euro(pe/a), the letter !, the map of
Europe and the European flag. The history of eurotypography would be an interesting
research topic as such. But evidently a eurosign can be meant to usher in new times
for the business, or, conversely, to signify its noble past (we were here already in the
EEC era). It can also show absolute disregard for or ignorance of political change.
The Finnish toponym researcher Paula Sjöblom (2006, p. 257) has compared
the name of an enterprise to a gate: if the identity of an enterprise is comparable to a
house, then the name of the enterprise is like a gate in the fence surrounding and
protecting the house. She has classified the functions of a company name into the
informative, persuasive, practical, integrative and individuating. Eurosigns can have
all these functions, too, but sometimes one must ask how well they serve their
There are informative eurosigns and euro attributes. The sign clarifies the
business idea of !urosouvenirs, which sells EU themed mementos, or of
EuroComment Bookshop, which sells EU literature. It is common for the euro
attribute to blur rather than clarify the message, though: Europhone is where you go
to telephone outside Europe, the Ukrainian clerk at Euromarket sells food produced
by multinationals, Eurosat is there to help you see satellite broadcasts from nonEuropean countries. The confusions often seem to arise from the conflict between the
informative and integrative tasks of the sign: Europhone and Eurosat are there both to
make the customers feel good about being in Europe and to keep in touch with people
who are not. Even semantically ambiguous names have distinct associations: they
help you to have it both ways.
The persuasive and the individuating functions also belong to the eurosign. It
can individuate something as classy or valuable and distinct from the mundane, and
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
persuade the customer to purchase it, and, in the process distinguish themselves from
the hoi polloi. A eurosign can also persuade the potential client by appealing to their
aspirations. An overlapping meaning is that of euro as cool and trendy. To go euro in
this sense is to fulfil one’s aspirations. Sometimes we’ll never quite find out the idea:
does a restaurant called Europarty suggest an uncommonly good experience, or one
for Europeans only? Or does it also suggest that the client becomes, through
patronising the restaurant, something that others can only aspire to be: a euro-client.
The same can be asked e.g. about a laundry with the name EuroWash. Does it wash
clothes superclean – euroclean?
In contrast to the preceeding, the eurosign can also signify something very
cheap and thus very practical: one can get everything for a euro from the Euro store
(at least its display seems to suggest that everything there costs just one euro) or
Eurosoldes (bijoux fantisie [sic], multi-gadjets). Here, the eurosign is perhaps used
merely because the currency happens to be called euro. It is also possible that the
eurosign is just a mute identifying mark: a “something” instead of something else but
substantially just the same. Is the “euro” attribute in Euromarine meant to suggest any
difference with maritime products offered by other boat shops? Perhaps not.
An example of the practicality of “euro” is space saving. Compare the sign of a shop
in the Marolles district selling “spécialités Belges-Greques-Espagnoles-MarocainesItaliennes-Turques - Self service” – the sign is really big and the name unwieldy – to
that of Restaurant Euro Mediterranee in the central tourist trap of Ilot Sacré. Here the
name covers roughly the same region (Belgium excepted) more effectively. The
eurosign also serves to create associations that are translocal: new European,
international, global or “mondial”. Sometimes it seems to have the same function as
the old-fashioned “colonial”. Euro is also used in one of the senses that American
used to have: all new and shiny. Interestingly, there are relatively few signs with
American symbols now in Brussels excepting those used by American brands
Further, a eurosign can act as a metonym that signifies a more complex entity.
As already noted, a eurosign can also stand for a diasporic, mobile and transient
identity. In this usage it is akin to welcoming people to a new, perhaps temporary,
home country. This usage would be different to its use by shops and services for
immigrants, who are here to stay. Lastly, the eurosign can often be interpreted in
terms of the aspiration of the owner of the business. Maybe it is even be a metaphor
for a better life or a new start? This does not necessarily mean a better life for the
customer, but a better life for the entrepreneur.
An important usage of the eurosign is, nevertheless, one that connects the
identity of the owner and/or intended clientele to that of the EU. As already noted, the
eurosign is used in connection with the sign of one or several countries. Examples
include male-oriented Turkish football supporters associations, which are, in effect,
cafeterias avoiding some business taxes. They often fly the Belgian, EU, and Turkish
colours. In the same vein, a mosque and the Algerian flag have been painted on the
business sign of the Euro International Call Shop. La Petite France, which is in the
Euro-quarter, advertises with a baguette surrounded by eurostars. A Portuguese
restaurant features a hand-painted pennant with the letter !. Some businesses opt for
many flags. The signboard of Millenium Telephone includes the EU, Turkish,
Moroccan, Bulgarian and Polish flags. The Snack and Fruit Bar has a picture in the
window depicting a tablecloth made of the EU flag, and plates decorated with the
Belgian, UK and Swedish flags.
Some patterns emerge from the combination of eurosigns with different
regions and ethnic affiliations. First, it is easier to transform old connections into
euroconnections than to forge entirely new eurolinks. The connections created by
colonialism turn easily into eurolinks, as in the many Euro-African enterprises. EuroIndian, Euro Indian-Pakistani, or Euro-Bangla rhyme with the older pattern of AngloIndian company names.15 Such usages tend to have something aspirational to them.
The Anglo-Indian dictionary Hobson Jobson: a glossary of colloquial AngloIndian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical,
geographical and discursive (1903) offers us this definition: EUROPE, adj.
Commonly used in India for ”European,” in contradistinction to country (q.v.) as
qualifying goods, viz. those imported from Europe. The phrase is probably
obsolescent, but still in common use. ”Europe shop” is a shop where European goods
of sorts are sold in an upcountry station. (--) c. 1817. (--) ”Now the Europe shop into
which Mrs. Browne and Mary went was a very large one, and full of all sorts of
things. One side was set out with Europe caps and bonnets, ribbons, feathers, sashes,
and what not.” -- Mrs. Sherwood's Stories, ed. 1873, 23 (--). ”Europe morning” is
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
Where European domination has been more limited, such transformations are less
frequent. I have not seen any Euro-Chinese business names, for example, but
Alimentation Euro Asian does exist. I have not observed any Euro-Australian, EuroIrish, Euro-Canadian, or Euro-North-American business names or signs either,
probably because there is no aspiration to match.
There are also stateless cultures that seem not to prefer eurosigns. The case of
those who identify themselves as Arameans, Syriacs, or Assyrians in Brussels is
illustrative. They have arrived mainly from Turkey or Syria, often use their local
dialect of Modern Aramaic, a rare Semitic language, and are Christian. There are
areas in Brussels (e.g., in Saint-Josse) where they have many shops and bars. These
typically use signs which make the ethnic or cultural connection clear: the Assyrian
Eagle sign, business names such as the Le Bon Samaritain, Les Jardins de Babylon,
Mesopotamia or a name referring to a former home village, such as Midyat, or a
home region such as Tur Abdin. These are seldom, if ever accompanied by eurosigns.
It would seem that the desire to signal the presence of one’s threatened culture is so
strong that there is a reluctance to dilute the identity-related message of the business
display with differing identity-oriented signs.
lying late in bed, as opposed to the Anglo-Indian's habit of early rising (Hobson
Jobson, pp. 344-345).
6. Conclusion
Let us now turn to a harder concept of branding. Kevin Lane Keller (2000) has
published a succinct Brand Report Card in the Harvard Business Review. According
to Keller, there are 10 key objectives of brand management for a business. The
successful brand excels at delivering the benefits that customers truly desire and stays
relevant. Price, cost, and quality meet customers’ expectations and there must be
”desirable and deliverable points of difference” with competitors. The brand must be
consistent, and the brand portfolio and hierarchy should make sense. A good brand
makes use of and coordinates a full repertoire of marketing activities to build equity,
and its managers understand what the brand means to consumers. Lastly, the brand
should be given proper support, and that support has to be sustained over the long run
and the company must monitor sources of brand equity. It is not the purpose of this
article to discuss the appositeness of such criteria for the brand management of a
supranational organisation such as the EU, nor to score the EUs efforts to manage its
brand. Suffice it to say that there are attempts within the EU, to create and manage
such a brand, and that criteria such as Keller’s could contribute to a methodology for
assessing how well the EU it does its job.
The main conclusion to draw from the prevalence of eurosigns in Brussels is
that its users find them positive in some sense. The signs can be seen as part of a
strategy that links the residence of persons to their biographical life history, and
enables them to see themselves as belonging to the area and acquiring a new status; a
process called elective belonging (Savage et al. 2005, p. 29). The use of the word
euro or EU-symbolism tends to signal a democratic aspiration. The use of eurosigns
to indicate exclusive quality is a minority strategy. In other words, euro can be
interpreted as the great leveler: We all can be “euro” in our way. It is like the meal
you can get at a restaurant called Euro Pizza which advertises European halal food
and offers the choice of pizza, fish, tandoori, pasta, or döner. Although there are
many restaurants named Euro Pizza in the world, this particular one (as well as its
namesake in Antwerp) suggests that it offers something to almost everybody.
There is a parallel with the brand strategy of Euro Pizza and that of the
European Commission. The Commission, too, has to offer something for almost
everybody. Its brand tells of a great history that has created common values, a great
future that delivers on those values, and a capacity to adapt to a changing world
according to a much more recent and selective set of values largely identifiable with
those of private enterprise. At the same time, the brand respects a common social
model, which, of course, has to change as well to meet the needs of EU businesses.
The EU brand is very much an aspirational brand. The politics of the EU forces it to
be a democratizing or popular brand in terms of the projected image.
As Keller’s Brand Report Card reminds us, however, it is the delivery that
finally decides the value of the brand. The Commission, which largely drives the
branding efforts, knows that it is not in charge of much of the delivery. What it does
deliver includes legislative and policy proposals that are often drafted after listening
much more sympathetically to some stakeholders than others. It can have great
problems in convincing the public that its delivery reflects the principles of
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
democracy and caters to public demand. Hence, perhaps, the populist element in the
branding effort. The Commission offers the chance for individuals to feel
participating (in e.g., competitions) or to be touched by heart-rending posters
appealing to universal rather than “European” values. The image campaigns seldom
appeal to some real or imaginary democratic characteristics of the Commissions
methods of work. The real scope for successful branding – branding that is
underwritten by substance controlled by the Commission as the brand manager – is
rather limited.
On the other hand, there will always be eurobrands that are more driven by the
perceived substance of the delivery of the EU. It is likely that many of these brands
dilute, or set in a realistic perspective, the more ambitious campaigns of the
Commission. For every campaign of the Commission’s project of European
excellence – past, present, or future – there is a concept of eurosomething that is
mediocre, not quite the real thing, and what people really buy – or wish to avoid.
Europizza in itself is such a brand. Everybody knows that the europizzas of all the
world’s Europizzerias are not quite the best. In Finland, Eastern Europe and Russia
there is the concept of a “eurorenovation” (evroremont): a quick fix that makes the
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
flat just good enough to be rented or sold (e-mail from architect Netta Böök
19.7.2006).16 It is slightly ambiguous in that both totally incompetent renovation
work as well as work that really gets a flat into “euroshape” – which is far from
luxury – can be covered by the term.
There are also signs that read as tongue-in-cheek comments on the eurohype.
Some Brussels’ signboards that are not eurothemed have a whiff of counter-branding
to them (on counter-branding see e.g. Jensen 2005). Consider African Master foodstore, Tam Tam Phone, Le Living Bar “Vata-Vata” (Resto-grill exotique), Shop
Kaboul, the barbershop Nouvelle Ecriture Africaine, Naïa (Specialites Turques,
Libanaises, Syriennes, Marocaines), but why not also BruCar or Scandinavian Dental
Center – a very rare case where the flags of the Nordic countries are presented. In the
Brussels context, it is if a eurosign had been left out for a reason here. Eurosigns are
also used in ways that make it very hard to work out their function or possible
meaning. Interviews of entrepreneurs might shed more light on the subtler meanings
of the sign.
Finally, private eurosigns can be more effective in changing the image of
Europe than the efforts of the Commission. Especially after the 11.9 the European
Commission has emphasised the importance of inter-cultural dialogue (e.g. Jean
Monnet Group on the Intercultural Dialogue 2002). Giorgia Aiello and Crispin
According to one home page ”evroremont” is a Muscovite term meaning ”Eurorenovation”, the replacement of Soviet style furnishings and decoration with a look
supposedly more in keeping with the Western side of the continent (Gott 2001).
© Riitta Oittinen, Brussels 2006
Thurlow (2006, p. 148) have said that in multilingual Europe, visual discourse may
function as a cross-culturally strategic form of communication, thanks in part to its
perceptual and iconic availability. From this perspective private eurosigns in Brussels
addresses, too, the question: what is Europeanness today?
The team of Eurosignspotters has around thirty members all around Europe. A warm
thank you to Kaliakra Alexeeva-Milkova, Arnold Bartetzsky, Netta Böök, Laura
Danilotskin, Marc Hautecoeur, Zsuzsanna Hegyközi, Elina Katainen, Hanna-Riikka
Kavasto, Anja Lempinen, Raimo Parikka, Jukka-Pekka Piimies, Thomas Pröls, Csaba
Remann, Leena Salakari, Maaria Seppänen and Tania Vladova, whose non-Belgian
contributions helped me to put the Brussels material in perspective.
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