With less than six months to go, it is a good time to consider what we might expect in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections.  The media’s visibility will be key. What can we expect in terms of media visibility for the election, the role of the campaigns, and the role of social media?

The media and EP elections

The EP election is a pivotal moment for democracy in the EU. It constitutes a concrete moment when news coverage about the EU might spike in terms of visibility, might peak in terms of Europeanness, might contribute to a transnational or European public sphere, and might be most meaningful in terms of its impact on citizens’ attitudes towards the EU and voting behavior.

The 2019 EP election takes place amidst a wave of populism, a rise in EU scepticism, the erosion of support for liberal democracy, a proliferation of social media, and widespread discussions about disinformation.

Based on extant research, we know that news media coverage of the EP election is not a single, uniform phenomenon. It is different in different countries, and across different elections. Systematic, comparative knowledge about the news coverage and the resulting national information environment is instrumental for understanding citizens’ attitudes towards the EU, their participation in the elections, and their vote choice.[1]

Being visible in the news is a necessary baseline to even speculate about an inter-linked Europeanisation of national public spheres, informed opinions, and electoral choice in the EP election. We know that there are not “one size fits all” conclusions to be made about the visibility of EU news in general or EP election news in particular. The visibility varies considerably and has ranged in the past between 5 and 20 percent of the news in the final weeks leading up to the election.  

In 2014 the average visibility of the EP election (see graph) was 8%. The highest visibility was found in Spain (18%), followed by France (16%) and Greece/Italy (13%). The lowest visibility was found in the Germany/Ireland (3%), followed by Austria/Belgium (4%). The 8% average is the highest visibility of an EP election so far in an EP election period, very close to the 7% average in 2009. These two elections were clearly more visible than the two prior elections (in 1999 and 2004). There is some variation in the trend. Some countries saw an increase compared to 2009 (e.g., Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden) while other saw a decrease (Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, UK).[2] 

What can we expect for 2019?

The election is likely to attract more attention in the news than previous elections. We know from the past that an increase in “elite contestation” energizes EU news. Put bluntly: if there is an increase in the degree to which parties and candidates disagree about EU affairs, this leads to more news. Conflict and disagreement are thus conducive to journalistic reporting about the elections.

2019 bodes well in this respect: the likelihood of having the highest number of parties campaigning with overt and explicit pro- and anti-EU messages is high. Mainstream parties and populist movements will clash over both the desirability of the EU at a fundamental level and different policy choices for the EU. This is beneficial in terms of generating news coverage. But obviously it is less straight forward if one hopes for either positive or negative EU coverage.

For citizens and the electorate, however, EP19 promises to be a more visible event than usual and this is essentially a positive thing. Even more so because we know that when citizens are exposed to news that highlights disagreement (and thereby also a variety of electoral choice and opinions), their likelihood to turn out to vote is greater.[3]

Spitzenkandidaten, social media, liberal democracies

What else can be expected?

From within the Brussels bubble, there is excitement to see how the Spitzenkandidat system will evolve. With “primaries” and a slate of more profiled candidates, this is likely to spark attention and create, at least temporary, patches of Europeanized public spheres around debates. The political battle as to the selection of the next European Commission president is yet to be determined, but both the EP, candidate MEPs, and European leaders are advised that most citizens care more about the viewpoints and plans of a prospective Commission president than who is in the lead in taking the decision on who that president is.

Finally, the EP election – as one of the world’s most extensive exercises in democracy – takes place at the height of the ongoing discussion about misinformation. The elections will be prone to this phenomenon too and we are likely to see party and campaign attempts at political micro-targeting, the spread of misinformation, and (deep) fakes by way of social media platforms, and a delicate discussion of how to protect both freedom of expression and fair play in an election campaign spanning across a range of different liberal democracies, with different electoral systems, different levels of citizen satisfaction with the EU, and different campaign cultures.

In these respects, the EP19 election looks rather exciting: parties, candidates, and even the media will find themselves in a more polarized and hybrid information environment than ever before.

[1] More information about the 2009 and earlier studies: Schuck, A.R.T., Xezonakis, G., Banducci, S. & De Vreese, C.H. (2010). EES (2009) Media Study Data Advance Release Documentation, 31/03/2010. (www.piredeu.eu)

[2] This analysis is confined to the EU member states in 1999 to keep the comparison across time.

[3] Schuck, A. R. T., Vliegenthart, R., de Vreese, C. H. (2016). Who’s afraid of conflict? The mobilizing effect of conflict framing in campaign news. British Journal of Political Science, 46(1), 177–194. doi:10.1017/S0007123413000525