Political strategies

How political conflicts affect the communication strategies of European Commissioners

Members of the European Commission often make statements to the media on Commission proposals. But what dictates the strategies used by curators when engaging with the media? Based on a new study, Moritz Muller, Caelesta Braun and Bert Fraussen show that the level of political conflict associated with a proposal has a significant impact on how commissioners choose to discuss it.

Examples like the recent Digital Services Act or the Green New Deal show that every time the European Commission makes a legislative proposal, its reputation is at stake. If a legislative proposal successfully passes the decision-making stage with broad political support, it contributes to the reputation of the Commission – after all, the organization will have shown that it can produce sensible, well-founded legislation that has gained political support. It is a different story if the legislative proposal encounters serious political opposition. In these cases, the Commission might appear weaker and less competent, which could limit its (future) influence and authority in policy-making processes.

The European Commission is a powerful player in the EU legislative system with scrutiny powers to propose new legislation. Commenting on current developments in the policy-making process in the media can help European Commissioners shield the Commission from criticism or capitalize on successful policy-making processes. However, our knowledge of the Commission’s strategic communication during policy-making processes is limited. In a new studywe seek to bridge this gap in our understanding.

reputation management

Previous research has shown that communication is often used as a strategic tool by regulators to build a strong reputation for various organizational skills. Once established, regulators can build on a strong reputation to extend existing mandates, instill confidence in key stakeholders, and ultimately ensure the survival of their organization. We know that regulators often behave strategically when communicating and maintaining their reputation profiles. For example, they consider potential future developments when making choices, or they react differently to various reputational threats, depending on the nature of the threat.

In reviewing a commissioner’s public communication efforts during policy-making processes, we focused on two separate decisions. First, would the commissioners speak out in the media or remain silent? Second, if they do speak up, what communication strategy would they choose? When we attempted to predict commissioners’ strategies regarding these two decisions, we used a key principle that has been frequently observed in research on regulatory communication: regulators are careful communicators, who aim to minimize reputational damage. and to maximize reputational benefits when opportunities to do so arise.

Simply put, we expected commissioners to voice their opinions in the news if the specific political context allowed them to “look good” or to display their political competence and remain silent if they risked “looking bad”. or appear less capable. Similarly, we expected Commissioners to speak confidently about the Commission’s legislative proposals if they expected broad political support for the Commission’s initiative, while being much more cautious if they sensed a political opposition.

Political advocacy or passive discourse?

To test these hypotheses, we collected 1,139 newspaper articles (in the main media covering EU affairs) on 54 legislative procedures at EU level between 2015 and 2016. For each newspaper article, we coded if a statement of the commissioner appeared in the article in question. If a Commissioner’s statement appeared, we coded whether the Commissioner used what we call “policy advocacy” or whether he used “passive talk”.

Policy Advocacy is an example of a Commissioner speaking confidently about the Commission’s legislative proposal. In contrast, passive speech is a case in which a commissioner avoids judgments regarding the legislative proposal and communicates in a much more careful and neutral way on the respective proposal, for example by commenting on more procedural aspects such as the involvement of the main parties. stakeholders. We then linked each article to policy-specific variables such as political conflict, media salience, and policy complexity. Finally, we tested our expectations by running multilevel binomial logistic models on the assembled dataset.

Overall, our findings support the image of the Commissioner communicating cautiously. We found that most of the independent variables included did not influence whether a commissioner made a public statement or remained silent, with the exception of policy complexity. The more complex a Commission’s legislative proposal, the more likely a Commissioner is to appear in the media coverage covering the proposal in question.

This finding makes sense from a theoretical point of view, as the Commission is widely seen as a more technocratic actor and therefore might be more inclined to comment on more technical issues with high levels of complexity. Looking at the Commissioners’ communication strategy in cases where they are in the news, we see that political conflict seems to be the driving force behind their communication strategy. We measured political conflict by evaluating the combined results of votes in the EU Council and Parliament. An overview of our findings is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Relationship between political conflict and Commissioners’ communication strategy

To note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in European Union Politics.

If the political conflict is low, we find that Commissioners communicate with much more confidence, emphasizing the possible benefits of new policy measures and thereby aiming to capture the reputational benefits of a smooth and successful policy-making process.

One of the less politically divisive cases in data, Directive 2016/2102 “on the accessibility of websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies”, was part of the Accessibility Act – a range of policies to better adapt public infrastructure to the needs of people with various types of disabilities. This directive specifically sets guidelines for improving the accessibility of websites and interfaces of public organizations and has received political support throughout the policy development process.

Media coverage shows that the commissioner responsible for legislation, Marianne Thyssen, has frequently publicly endorsed the legislation. Above all, she wrote a opinion piece on the act in EURACTIV in which she promotes the Commission’s efforts to improve accessibility for all and explains how the Accessibility Act will achieve this goal. She made similar promotional claims in other newspaper articles. Other pieces of legislation in the dataset with little political conflict show identical patterns, with policy advocacy being the dominant communication style of Commissioners in news coverage, complemented by the occasional use of passive speech. .

Legislative acts that were politically divisive are treated very differently in the news media. If the political conflict is high, commissioners are more likely to communicate cautiously and use mostly ‘passive talk’. This strategy enables them to minimize potential damage to the Commission’s reputation if a policy-making process encounters high levels of resistance.

Take the example of one of the most divisive pieces of legislation in the sample, Directive 2016/2284. This aims to regulate certain pollutants in the environment and has come up against significant political opposition. In addition to disagreements with the initial Commission proposal, Parliament and Council disagreed on key points of the proposal.

Karmenu Vella, the commissioner for the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries at the time, made frequent but cautious statements in news stories that mostly described problems with too much air pollution. Unlike the Communication on Directive 2016/2102, it never mentioned the possible benefits of the Commission’s proposal, but instead focused on the problem at hand, or on more procedural elements such as how the Commission aimed to facilitate an agreement between the Council and the Parliament. .

Overall, our results confirm the image of the cautious communicative commissioner. If commissioners face risk or reputational damage, they communicate with caution and refrain from making bold statements. However, if they anticipate political ‘victories’, their language reflects their confidence through the public promotion of the Commission’s political position.

For more information, see the authors’ companion document in European Union policy


Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Council