Personalised European Union politics: what are the consequences for democracy?

9 November 2015

The personalisation of politics has been apparent for a while now in national politics, with political developments, election campaigns, voting behaviour and media attention often tending to revolve around individual politicians rather than political parties. Is this also the case in European Union politics, and, if so, what are the consequences? UvA communication scientist Katjana Gattermann received a Veni grant to conduct research on this question.

A significant reason for Gattermann to do this research is the apparent lack of knowledge and trust people have regarding European politics. According to Gattermann, ‘Although European politics is becoming increasingly important, the distance between “Europe” and its citizens is becoming greater. One way to bridge that gap is through personalisation: when citizens get to know politicians it reduces the distance between them and automatically also acquaints them with the topics politicians are engaged with. This in turn stimulates greater involvement. At least, that’s one of my hypotheses. In my research, I study the occurrence of the phenomenon itself at the EU level, as well as its effects.’

Differences between countries

In the first two sub-projects the communication scientist is investigating the patterns of personalisation in journalistic reporting (the extent to which personalisation has decreased or increased over time) and the factors that play a role in variations within these patterns. ‘It’s to be expected that we’ll be seeing greater personalisation in European politics over time, especially as a trend towards European leaders. Moreover, I expect we’ll see clear differences between various countries. The media system plays a major role. For instance, in some systems there’s more competition between media, and I anticipate that here  individual politicians come more into focus. The electoral system is also important; my previous research, for instance, suggested that in Ireland, where politicians are elected directly by voters, there’s a considerable media focus on individual politicians. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, more attention is paid to political parties since these play a greater role than individual politicians.’

Does greater understanding mean greater involvement?

Gattermann furthermore wants to know what the effect of personalisation is. One major hypothesis is that people understand the message better, which makes them better informed and thus more democratically involved. Other scientists, by contrast, expect that paying greater attention to individuals comes at the expense of substantive information on policy and political issues, meaning citizens in fact end up less informed. ‘I’m investigating these effects in two survey experiments. I’m examining whether personalised newspaper articles have an impact on political trust and cynicism regarding the EU. I’m also investigating whether information on the private lives of politicians – also a form of personalisation – has any bearing on the way citizens view the EU. Previous studies have already shown that this latter aspect could even turn out to have a negative impact on trust.’

The results of this research will be important for EU politicians, media and citizens, Gattermann believes, ‘For the first two groups, it’s important how information is “delivered” to citizens. Citizens, for their part, are dependent on news media for information about the EU. If that information has a more personal focus, it may also be more favourable for them.’

Katjana Gattermann is Assistant Professor of Political Communiaction and Journalism at the Department of Communication Science and is also affiliated with the Amsterdam Centre for Contemporary European Studies ( ACCESS EUROPE).

Published by  Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences