Written by Ralf Drachenberg,

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Over recent years, the members of the European Council have, in a number of landmark declarations such as the Bratislava Declaration, pointed to the need to improve communication with citizens, as part of the process of building greater trust and confidence in the European Union and its institutions. As social media, and notably Twitter, have become an important part of politicians’ communication strategy generally, this study looks specifically at how EU leaders in the European Council communicate on Europe via Twitter. The objective is to identify the EU topics they tweet about, outline the differences between the EU Heads of State or Government, and explore the ways in which they communicate and engage with their target audiences.

This study analyses 31 004 tweets by 34 EU Heads of State or Government, posted between January 2019 and June 2020. It shows that the use of Twitter by EU leaders as a communication tool is, on average, comparable to other international political leaders. However, the intensity of use of the platform still varies significantly among them. A similar variation exists for their tweets on European issues: for many, Europe represents a significant proportion of their overall Twitter activity; however, it appears that those who tweet most in general, mention EU issues considerably less proportionally.

One of the main findings is that, if communication is understood as ‘reporting on’, EU leaders certainly communicate frequently on Europe. They do this mainly in the context of events or meetings, including the European Council. However, a striking feature is apparent in the way individual EU leaders’ communicate on Europe via their Twitter accounts: as a general pattern, EU leaders inform people about, or report on, their various meetings, mentioning the main topics discussed, however, EU leaders do not generally explain Europe and the substance of what is going on within the EU institutions, nor do they outline their own positions and priorities or try to convince their audience of their position.

The study shows that the individual issues EU leaders tweet about most are ‘interactions between EU leaders’, followed by combined tweets on (before, during and after) European Council meetings; tweets on ‘interaction with EU representatives’ are also frequent. When grouping the individual issues together into clusters, the ‘policy’ areas which are by far most often the subject of tweets are external relations, the multiannual financial framework and climate issues, which in turn also shows that EU leaders often tweet about topics linked to specific national interests.

Almost all EU leaders announce upcoming European Council meetings, mentioning the main agenda points, but they also tweet about preparatory meetings between individual EU leaders, regional alliances (such as the Visegrád Four), and the meetings of their European political parties. Tweets regarding the European Council President are less frequent, with EU leaders instead tweeting more about other EU representatives (such as the European Commission President). Furthermore, examining Twitter activity over time shows peaks and downturns in the level of interest in a topic, closely connected to the occurrence of milestone events. Finally, there is a strong connection between the intensity of EU leaders’ Twitter activity on EU issues and whether they hold the rotating Council Presidency or not.

This analysis of EU leaders’ Twitter accounts provides a unique overview of their bilateral meetings and how they communicate about them via Twitter. Diversity is evident when looking at the amount of tweets dedicated to communicating on bilateral meetings, with some Heads of State or Government often issuing several tweets per meeting held and others not being nearly as active. Variances in tweeting on the same bilateral meetings are also evident and leaders who held fewer meetings were not always those from smaller Member States.

When examining the methods EU leaders apply to engage their Twitter audience, the analysis shows that most tweet primarily in their native language, indicating that their main target audience is at national level. However, when they want to put an important message across, many do translate their messages into other EU languages to reach beyond their own Member State. A few EU leaders also tweet mainly in English (as a non-native language), suggesting a more European target audience on Twitter. While hashtags are frequently used by nearly all EU leaders, many are linked to specific events or locations. The findings also show that, in general, the leaders’ EU-related tweets do not generate the same level of interaction (retweets and likes) from their audience as do their tweets on national issues.

Read the complete study on ‘The Twitter activity of members of the European Council‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.