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The Visual Politics of the European Union


The political controversies associated with the visual presence of the European Union (EU) have a longer history than the EU itself. This is evident in the unwieldly processes of designing and adopting common symbols including the EU flag, passport, currency and the visual diplomacy of ‘family photos’ of EU leaders. EU institutions have revamped their visual presence and communication strategies both off- and online since the early 2010s. This suggests an area of great and increasing prominence for EU institutions, which have established highly detailed rules for what they term their ‘visual identity’ (EU Commission, European Parliament and the ‘Council Family’) including the use of the logo’s, co-branding with partner organisations, the production of maps, the use of images and colours, and the graphical styles and designs of publications, Web pages and social media outlets. Moreover, the visual presence of especially the EU Commission is coordinated by a series of governance bodies cutting across administrative units and regular meetings at different administrative levels. However, we know very little of the daily practices of EU visual politics.

The visual presence of the EU is not apolitical; it is arguable highly significant EU political legitimacy and authority and for the constitution of the EU as a political reality.

In my recently published article, I explore the roles of images in EU politics. The articles do three things: (1) elaborate a fourfold typology of images and their implication in day-to-day politics (2) develops a methodology for the systematic study of images and assessing their roles in politics and – on that backdrop – (3) explore the visual politics of the EU Commission.

The fourfold typology highlights images as instruments for conveying actors’ interest (emblems), as vehicles for identity-building (representation), as means of reproducing political divisions (domination) and images as devises of including and excluding actors and ideas in politics (ordering).

The article develops compound comparative methodology studying three Commission Directorate-Generals (DGs) – the DG for Environment, the DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, and the DG for Regional and Urban Policy. The data consists of front page images from three flagship Commission magazines Environments for Europeans, Social Agenda and Panorama. Each of the total of 104 images are categorised in the categories deemed in the most and second fitting according to the typology. Editors of the magazines were also interviewed.

What is clear is that the Commission use images for a range of purposes and has become increasingly intentional during the past ten or so years in their use of visual discourse. The Commission has set up both horizontal and vertical governance structures and developed highly detailed guidelines for the use of images and the visual presence of the Commission. These structures and rules allow for some room for action for individual DGs, however, they follow similar paths in their use of images. Unsurprisingly, visualisations of political divisions are rare (images of domination). Likewise, images antagonizing societal and political actors are rare and visually sidelining certain policy ideas – e.g. unfortunate environmental practices – has become increasingly sporadic (images as ordering devises). Especially two points stands out when considering the Commission use of images. First, the Commission use images to set policy agendas and frame policy options (emblematic imagery). However, the imagery is visually subtle so to avoid building opposition among other key actors in EU politics. On the one hand, such imagery typically depict policy problems associated with specific policy sectors – e.g. environmental depletion and social challenges including unemployment and migration. On the other hand, policy options are framed broadly by visualizing solutions drawing on available clean technologies and human resources leaving room for negotiating the details of common regulations. Second, in a similar subtle manner, identity-building images permits the Commission to search for legitimacy (representational imagery), while eschewing further estranging publics sceptical of EU supranationalism and maintaining the allegiances of the political actors in favour of common EU policies. On the one hand, such images typically visualize progress – e.g. by means of modern technologies and obvious successful infrastructures projects – and show groups of people working together on common tasks – e.g. younger people helping older generations getting to grips with modern technologies. On the other hand, while both local and global EU leadership it is clearly signalled, the images are restrained in ‘flagging’ and using images associated with EU institutions.

It is still early days for the study of EU visual politics and there are plenty of research waiting to be done, but the two most important pathways are probably: first, studying the visual presence of other key actors in EU politics – including the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the European Council, and organised interests – is an obvious route for future research. Second, we know even less about the reception and reproduction of visual discourse, both among political elites and in the publics. This is a potentially highly rewarding area of research supplying insights into how the receiving end of visual communication behave in the face of an increasingly intentional use of visuals by the EU.

This blog post draws on the JCMS article: The Roles of Images in EU Politics.


Kennet Lynggaard is Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Denmark. His research focuses on politics and governance, discourse analysis, research design, and the role of symbols, myths and emotions in EU politics. He is the author of Discourse Analysis and European Union Politics (2019) and co-editor of Research Methods in European Union Studies (2015) (with I. Manners & K. Löfgren).

Twitter: http://@KennetLynggaard


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