Projects

How the EU manages its crises

On 21 October 2021, presumably the last EU summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the agenda featured well-known challenges such as migration and the pandemic, but also unplanned topics such as Poland’s controversial judicial reform. Source: JOHN THYS / AFP / picturedesk.com

The financial crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit, the crumbling rule of law, the Covid pandemic, climate change and, most recently, Poland’s decision to accord its national constitution superiority over EU law – for a good decade the European Union has now been in crisis mode. This has given rise to a Euroscepticism that is increasingly weakening this community of solidarity that was founded as a peace project. Be that as it may, crises are part and parcel of political life, and what is needed is good crisis management. In the business world, having contingency plans and crisis officers for emergencies has long been a matter of course, since the survival of the company might be at stake if the worst case scenario should hit. This is why Olga Eisele, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, turned to literature on corporate communication for her politics-related research question: how do the EU and its member states cope with crises and who sets the pace, policy-makers or the media?

Eisele started her current project with a comprehensive political data analysis based on policy statements and speeches from 2009 to 2018, sourced from a compendium of over 90,000 documents. Eisele specifically studied four EU member states (Austria, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom) and the European Union itself. With this first systematic long-term analysis of its kind Eisele intends to reveal what lessons policy-makers can learn, because “the way crises are managed and evaluated could determine the future of the EU,” says Eisele.

The characteristics of good crisis communication

Eisele, a Firnberg Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, who currently holds a position at the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna, after having worked in Germany and at the IHS in Vienna, bases her assessments of the documents on four aspects of successful crisis communication: whether the statements were comprehensible, the extent to which they had the potential to allay fears, whether public concerns and affected groups were included, and whether they were speaking with one voice or involved contradictions that tend to weaken the position taken. In order to compare these results, Eisele’s team compared the crisis management of the executive branch with non-crisis communication.

Similarities between EU and Germany

The most striking result was furnished by the comparison between the EU and Germany. There was little difference between crisis mode and everyday political rhetoric in Germany and none at all in the EU. “In the EU, the discourse takes place more between the institutions, and the messages that are sent to the outside world are more about coordination than communication,” says Eisele and draws the following conclusion: “Since crisis communication legitimises crisis policy vis-à-vis the outside world, one can infer that the EU is less concerned about legitimation. This tallies well with the narrative that the EU is distanced from the citizens, technocratic and more of an elite project.” Germany also occupies a special place in a comparison of EU member countries. As a founding member of the EU, Germany has remained a steadfast partner of the Union over all these years and the crises have not significantly increased EU-scepticism there, whereas more significant increases have been found in the other three members of the crisis-ridden Union. With its exit from the EU, the United Kingdom is challenging the EU’s validity altogether.  

Fearmongering instead of reassurance

Looking at the four dimensions that are relevant in a crisis separately, the researchers found that both the EU and the four nation states show similar reactions in terms of appeasement and addressing those affected. The analyses show that crisis managers tended to refer more directly to individuals or affected groups in crises, whereas those who represent authorities tended to engage in the politics of fear rather than allaying concerns. The researchers conclude that this may have led to political frustration and disappointment. Eisele has this theory: “The policy of fear-mongering is used strategically to demonstrate one’s own strength, to expand competences and to mobilise voters.”  

Austria and Ireland use clearer crisis language

The results differ with regard to clear communication that is internally coordinated. Again, Germany is an exception, as the clarity of crisis communication has declined in comparison to all the others. In this respect, too, it reveals its proximity to the EU, where crisis issues were also handled in a way that was hard for outsiders to comprehend. This could reflect doubt and disagreement about how crises should be managed. The fact that the two member states Austria and Ireland score relatively high on this point indicates that their heads of government have presented their arguments clearly and understandably in times of crisis.  

Next research steps – a focus on the media

Following these initial findings, Eisele will now examine more closely media coverage and its influence and role in the context of political crisis communication. There is at least one good aspect about the many crises. “They increase the visibility of the actual problems, such as the EU’s democratic deficit, which is an issue widely discussed in academia,” says Eisele. A potential lesson to be learned from these crises might be that they need to be taken seriously and that future warnings should be listened to before it is too late. This was highlighted by the flood disasters in the summer of 2021, when warnings from the European Flood Awareness System EFAS were ignored.


Personal details

Olga Eisele graduated in European Studies in Germany and holds a PhD in Political Science from the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS) and the University of Vienna. After positions in Germany, Eisele is currently a postdoc at the Computational Communication Science Lab (CCL) of the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. Her research project “Tango on a Tightrope” (2018-2022) is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF in the context of its Hertha Firnberg Programme with EUR 234,000.


Publication

Eisele O., Tolochko P., Boomgaarden HG: How do executives communicate about crises? A framework for comparative analysis, in: European Journal of Political Research, 2021 (forthcoming)

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