STEP 2. Agenda-Setting in the EU

If we apply the definition of political agenda provided in the previous step, we could say that EU agenda is the list of issues and priorities that receive serious consideration by EU institutions. As in the EU the polity is fragmented across 28 Member States and the ‘public sphere’ is not developed as in the national systems, at the EU level the distinction between ‘public/systemic’ agenda and ‘political/institutional’ agenda is less relevant and the institutional context becomes the most important one when talking of agenda-setting.

 However, as there are several EU institutions (European Commission, European Council, Council of Ministers and European Parliament) we could say that there is not just a ‘single’ agenda for the entire EU. Beyond that, each of the abovementioned institution can have its own agenda that does not necessarily coincides with that of the others. Just to give you an example, environment or human rights might be a key priority for the European Commission or the European Parliament but not necessarily relevant for the Council of Ministers or the European Council. Moreover, even inside a single institution there might be different agendas. Think for instance about the European Commission. Its internal organisation is highly variegated with different DGs that might have each their own peculiar agenda.

In the EU, the agenda-setting process is fragmented among a high number of actors competing to push forward their issues and policy alternatives. In this context, there are two different ‘routes’ through which issues can enter the EU agenda and that involve different groups of actors.

The first is the high politics’ route, which regards issues that - due to their strategic nature and high value for the strategic survival of the system- enter the agenda ‘from the above’. Issues that follow a high politics route are for instance those pertaining to security, defence, foreign policy.  In this case, the agenda-setting is a top-down process embedded with political value and strategic considerations. The key actors here are political leaders and institutions such as the European Council and the Council of Ministers. As the issues that follow this route receive a high political attention they are able to enter the agenda quite quickly.

The second is instead the ‘low politics’ route, which concerns issues that are more technical rather than strategic and that, therefore, due to their nature, enter the agenda ‘from below’ in much slower process. Health, consumers, environment are all examples. In this case, the agenda-setting is a ‘bottom-up’ technical process where key actors are policy experts, interest groups, the European Commission and its working groups debating in forums and policy networks.

If these two routes explain the how of agenda-setting in the EU, questions emerge on the why, i.e. the reasons behind agenda-setting. To put it simply, why do certain issues rise EU agenda at some point in time? Why in a specific moment we decide that time has come to focus on unemployment or on terrorism, whereas until a moment before we were not paying attention at all to those issues?

The answer is that for an issue to enter the agenda -either through low or high politics route- a policy window must be opened. A policy window is a window of opportunity, a moment that is particularly propitious to push an issue high on the agenda. Generally, a policy window opens when there is a major crisis or a shocking or focusing event that brings a problem or an issue to the fore. Just to give you an example: the 9/11 attack to the Twin Towers in New York was a major focusing event that brought the issues of terrorism, war on terror and national security high on the agenda of many countries.

Similarly, the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 were a policy window for the EU to change its policies in Northern Africa. The events brought the issue of democracy and human rights to the fore and high on the agenda of all EU institutions.

When a policy window opens due to a focusing event, problems, potential solutions and political conditions come together, allowing for a specific issue to rise the agenda. To better understand this process let us suppose you are the owner of a company specialised in recycling. If environmental protection is suddenly seen as an issue (problems) due to a major environmental disaster (focusing event) and governmental coalitions are particularly sensitive to the problem (political conditions), you might propose the development of recycling as a policy alternative (solution). Therefore, you might exploit the propitious moment to ‘attach’ your solution to the problem and push the issue of recycle high on the agenda.

For this process to occur, it is often necessary to have not only a focusing event in place, but also a key actor which plays as an entrepreneur to exploit the moment and bring certain issues high on the agenda. For example, the European Commission and its Presidents have very often played this role.

Jacques Delors was the President of the European Commission from 1985 and 1995, and he was one of the most important policy entrepreneur of the European Union, bringing new issues on the agenda and making many step forward to strengthen the process of European Integration. To know more about him and his policy entrepreneur role, give a look at this video

However, the policy window of opportunity does not remain forever open and might close at some point, with attention fading and issues losing their prominence.

For many years the EU and the US have jointly worked to conclude a free trade agreement called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The policy window has been opened for many years due to the reciprocal interest and the need to reduce barriers to common trade. However, after Brexit and the election of American President Donald Trump, political conditions changed and the window of opportunity to conclude the TTIP closed with no negotiations going on and with the issue no longer on both EU and US agenda.

Finally, in the process of agenda-setting, the way an issue is ‘defined’ and ‘framed’ is extremely important. A ‘frame’ is the way you structure reality and look at a particular issue. Just to give you an example: do you see migration and asylum as a human right issue or as a security issue? Do you see pollution as an environmental problem dealing with the protection of earth, or as minor implication of industrial activities?  The same issue can be interpreted in different ways and a problem can be defined in different terms.

Adopting again the example used above, let us suppose you are the owner of a company specialised in recycling. The issue around using recycling can be seen and framed as an environmental issue (protecting the environment), socio-economic issue (creating new jobs in the sector), or economic developmental issue (boosting local economy). Therefore, frames are very important because they determine not only the way a particular issue is seen, but also the potential alternative solutions to deal with the issue.

Along with frames, venues are also very important. They are the ‘institutional’ places in which decisions on policy are taken. For example, the EU can be seen itself as a venue in comparison to Member States. A policy decision can therefore be taken at the EU level (EU as a venue) or in a Member State (national institutional forums as a venue). However, also within the EU we can have different venues. Each EU institution (European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Ministers and European Council) is a venue with its own dynamics, priorities and agendas. This means that the frame determines the venue, which in turn determines which kind of policies will developed, thereby reinforcing the original frame.