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Final Report Summary - ENGAGING EU CITIZENS (How to involve the European citizenry in European politics? Emotions, media discourse, and mobilisation.)

Research question: How to politically engage citizens for European politics? The theoretical puzzle is two-fold:

Research objective 1:
In 2000, the first mass demonstrations were held on a European issue: called upon by the European leadership, European citizens took to the streets in various member-states in defense of European values. In the last two decades, a few more issue have become politicized. What mechanism explains the fact that political entrepreneurs, such as anti-establishment politicians and trade unionists, were able to mobilise European citizens on the Haider affair, the Bolkestein directive, and Turkish EU membership negotiations? Why did European citizens not become politically engaged on other similar EU issues?

Research objective 2:
All issues, except for the Haider affair in 2000, were politicised by political entrepreneurs who did not agree with the decisions made by the European political elite. Media effect theory and collective action research confirm that negative framing has a stronger effect than positive framing. However, does this imply that only those who challenge European decision-making are able to politically activate citizens who support their views? Assuming that the European political elite had good reasons to make a certain decision - would the European decision-makers be able to mobilise those citizens who support their decision if it is framed and communicated in the same manner as how their opponents politically activated European citizens?

Politicization implies that citizens are being activated to think about a matter, form an opinion, and – possibly – become politically active by talking with each other about the issue, or by undertaking further political actions. The politicization of issues is normal in national politics, but still a recent phenomenon in European politics. The European leadership has yet to come to terms with the fact that the political game has changed. Media discourse emanating from un-politicized consensual decision-making in interest-based arenas does not reach many citizens. It is not that Europe's citizens do not care about European politics, or that they are too apathic – as some scholars maintained. For most of the history of European integration, citizens were not called upon to form their opinion on a European issue. In the era of permissive consensus, this made life easier for those who had to negotiate compromises. However, without somebody making clear to Europe's citizens that something is at stake, we cannot expect a lively public debate on Europe.

The recent politicization of European politics shows that mobilization is not dependent on institutional prerequisites – although the differences in institutional set-up between the EU and national democracies may have a negative effect on European mobilization – nor is mobilization intrinsic to a specific issue. We argue that many EU issues dispose of qualities that when spotlighted by a political entrepreneur may convince citizens of the personal relevance of those issues to their lives. Depending on the objectives of the political entrepreneur, this may go either way: against or in favour of EU decision making.

In order to uncover the process that leads to the politicization of European issues, a mixed-method approach has been chosen. First, a model has been developed that describes how issues are politicized in national politics. The novelty here is that we combined insights from media effect research and collective action theory. Second, on the basis of these two literatures, a coding tree was developed with which the media debates on two cases were analysed: the European Haider case from January 2000 leading to mass demonstrations in favour of the European Union in February 2000 across Europe, and the case of the service directive aka Bolkestein directive that was politicized in 2005 and led to the rejection of the Constitution for Europe by way of a referendum in France.

Third, the upheaval caused by the Euro crisis and the negotiations on aid packages for Greece turned out to be a blessing for this research project. When people from all walks of life discuss a European issue, then this is perfect example of an engaged European citizenry. So, as a third case, the Greek Euro crisis was added to the project. Across Berlin, short street interviews were held to establish whether people had talked Europe with their family, friends or colleagues that day or in the previous days. Approaching the interviews and formulating the first, main question was held as open as possible: the only cue the interviewees received was that it was about politics – nothing else. Still, more than 80% of those who said to have talked politics, had talked about Greece and the Euro crisis. Subsequently, the three newspapers that were most often mentioned by the interviewees as their source of information were analysed in the same manner as the newspapers for the first two cases.

Fourth, from the analysis of the three cases, we were able to establish a correlation between certain emotionally highly loaded statements in the media and, subsequent, mobilization of Europe's citizens for or against EU decision-making. These correlations confirmed the proposed model for the politicization of European issues. However, with this methodology, it would not be possible to establish any explicit, direct link. Therefore, an experiment was organised in which the stimulus material was written on the basis of highly emotionally loaded statements identified in the three cases.

What do we learn from this experiment? Most of all that emotionally highly loaded political statements activate people – especially, their thinking, but may also increase the likelihood that they become engaged in political action. If the European leadership would wish citizens to think positive about the EU and the decisions they have made within the European realm, then they have to fight for the citizens' support in the manner they often do when it comes to national politics. Using emotion, and appealing to the hearts and minds of European citizens may induce some of them to express negative opinions about the EU. However, without positive emotional appeals, only few participants referred positively to the EU. This is something quite different from better informing the European citizenry, as various politicians and the Commission in its communication policy often put forward over the years. Quite on the contrary. That is the kind of top-down communication that has been so unsuccessful. It means entering into a debate. By being the first who rallies for support for a certain decision, it becomes less easy for other political entrepreneurs to convince the citizenry that, instead, their flavour is the best. This is all quite normal in national politics. The kind of emotion fused in public debates on national issues, should become much more normal in European politics as well, if we would like to keep on solving societal problems by dealing with them on a European level.

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