Issue Hierarchization on the European Council Agenda


By Eliška Ullrichová

The study of political agenda-setting analyses what issues political actors think and talk about. Alongside the descriptive analysis of issues on the policy agenda, the element of ‘how’, these problems are discussed, is no less important. The agenda-setting debate centrally focuses on the determination of the most important problem of a particular agenda at a specific time. What issue takes most of political representatives’ time and attention? Agenda-setting is important because there is no further political debate, policy formulation or decision over a particular issue without this stage of policymaking. Scholars attempt to identify the most important problem on the agenda because this issue has the highest probability of generating political activity.

In an article recently published in JCMS,  I propose the framework of issue hierarchization to identify not only the most important problem but also the position of all issues on the entire agenda. This enables us to follow the path of a particular item from a long-term perspective to identify how the issue gets on the top of the agenda and how the position of issues influences the entire agenda-setting dynamic. The concept of issue hierarchization allows us to tell apart primary and secondary issues. The former type encompasses problems that attract the most policy attention at a specific time. The latter category refers to less salient issues occupying less policy attention than primary ones. The salience of issues is measured by assessing place, space and framing. The earlier an issue is mentioned, the more space taken up in the minutes and the more urgent the framing, the more salient an issue is considered to be and, thus, to have a higher position on the agenda.

The differentiation between primary and secondary issues at a given time allows us to see the position of and general attitude towards a particular issue in a medium or long-term perspective. The article analyses issue hierarchization and dynamics in the case of the European Council agenda from December 2014 to December 2020, which covers the periods of two European Commission Presidents, Jean-Claude Juncker and Ursula von der Leyen. Even though six years period might offer a medium-term rather than a long-term perspective, it reveals an interesting tendency.

The findings indicate three categories of issues based on their dynamics on the agenda. First, some problems tend to occupy primary positions and rarely drop to the second position: these include migration or Brexit. Second, the European Council agenda is composed of regularly discussed secondary issues that only exceptionally move to the highest position. These ʻstable issuesʼ are prone to be excluded from the agenda in the event that a highly salient problem emerges. However, this elimination is only temporarily. Once a crisis or an emergency is fading, the stable issue is more than likely to rise on the agenda again. External relations and climate change are good examples of these kinds of issues. The third group refers to issues that constantly change their position from primary to secondary and the other way around. Jobs, growth, and competitiveness are, for example, classified as highly dynamic issues.


Figure: Dynamics of different categories of issues on the EC agenda


In addition, it is noteworthy to mention that if an issue drops out of the European Council agenda for a few meetings, this does not necessarily mean it will not appear on the agenda after a while. This is a very interesting finding because agenda-setting scholars widely assert that there are two types of competition among issues for policy attention – to get (1) onto an agenda and (2) to the top of an agenda. This research, however, indicates that there are different dynamics to the competition of getting onto an agenda among issues that have never been placed on the agenda before and those that have been featured before. This is believed to be a factor of inertia, in particular. In this context, inertia refers to historical trends of policy attention towards specific issues on a particular policy agenda. Inertia is the reason why new issues face difficulties in getting onto the agenda. Inertia is also why certain issues are privileged in getting onto the agenda after dropping out after they have already managed to get onto an agenda before.

In conclusion, my article on issue hierarchization has shown in the case of the European Council agenda that the identification of primary and secondary issues on the entire agenda is helpful to understand the medium and/or long-term performance of an issue on the policy agenda. Since agenda-setting is a litmus test for the policymaking process, a medium or long-term issue’s performance is of use to understand the correlation between an issue’s position on the agenda and potential policy or decision-making regarding it.



Eliška Ullrichová is PhD Candidate in Area Studies at Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic)

Her research interests are in the area of EU agenda-setting, environmental policy, and diplomacy. During her PhD studies, Eliška was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Padua (2020) under the supervision of Professor Graziano.


Twitter handle: @EUllrichova

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