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New EUI research: A look at COVID-19 messaging

Posted on 19 February 2021

On 16 February, the European Governance and Politics Programme organised the ‘Testing Europe’s Democratic Legitimacy in the Covid-19 Crisis’ workshop exploring how the pandemic has altered Europe’s democratic processes. The event, held virtually over the course of the day, was a chance for several EUI researchers and fellows to present recent research related to COVID-19 and its impact on democracy.

 

EGPP-Covid

“Covid-19 has resulted in an economic, health, social, and international crisis”, said EUI President Renaud Dehousse, opening the workshop. “It’s crucial for us at the EUI to outline how we can contribute to deciphering what is going on.”

Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre, and Anja Thomas, Max Weber Fellow, then introduced the first panel ‘European Public Sphere and Input Legitimacy’. Laffan stated: “The Covid crisis is a living experiment in freezing economies. It’s unclear yet what impact it will have on European politics, but we need to ask bigger and broader questions about where the European Union is at in this stage.”

During the first panel, PhD Researcher Jakob Bøggild Johannsen presented his research on how social media exposure to either pro or counter-attitudinal news about COVID-19 restrictions directly affects individual attitudes towards those policies. Drawing on a social media experiment conducted in the UK and Ireland, his findings show that these two types of news effectively increased or reduced polarisation, in comparison to ‘control groups’ that did not receive any of these messages.

Subsequently, Lorenzo Cicchi, Tobias Widmann and Ajna Thomas provided a comparative analysis on how the EU was framed during the first COVID wave. Their research contends that support for the EU’s policies is strongly dependent on the narratives public political figures use to create narratives around Europe’s actions. For example, radical-right users and parties overwhelmingly frame Europe’s COVID response as negative, while far-left actors strongly drive positive reactions. The cleavage between ‘frugal countries’ and the rest of Europe is surprisingly less clear-cut, with the Netherlands acting as the real driver behind the use of negative frames.

Daniele Caramani, Director of the Programme, closed this panel by asking all the discussants “what makes the analysis of COVID relevant for the theories of politics and governance?” Caramani suggested that COVID-19 is an extreme instance of politics rather than a matter of technical expertise, highlighting core issues of life and death, and alternatives between individual liberty and collective interest, as well as between health matters and economic survival, forcing politicians to make hard choices. As the papers show, this leads to more polarisation, discourses that are more nationalist and a challenge to democratic rules in the face of existential emergencies.

In spring of 2020 the EUI granted funding for seventeen research projects related to COVID-19. Read about these, as well as those within the European Governance and Politics Programme, online.