By Verena K. Brändle and Olga Eisele
In March 2020 EU governments unilaterally began closing state borders in an ad hoc reaction to the rapid spreading of SARS-CoV-2. Within a few days, one after the other announced that border crossings would be suspended until further notice. These executive decisions gave us pause: democratic governments are required to communicate and justify their decisions to maintain legitimacy. Certainly, exceptional circumstances like the Covid-19 pandemic required swift and decisive actions from executive state organs if not to, at least, demonstrate some sense of being in control. Yet, thinking back on the last decade of crises and stability, we started wondering more generally about how EU governments communicated about borders.
Encountering a lack of theoretical attention and systematic evidence about what we term, in our article for JCMS, governmental border communication, we explore 12 years of German and Austrian governments’ press releases to investigate both broader trends and discursive constructions of borders. We find that border communication is strategic and that governments communicate about borders as both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ at the same time. Our findings raise critical questions about accountability and the purpose of government communication in democracies more generally.
Combining state-centric and discursive approaches
Overall, we can speak of two broader streams in the literature of how to understand borders. On the one hand, there is a focus on borders from a state-centric perspective. Borders are understood to demarcate states or countries. Contestation of borders is acknowledged in research on different sorts of territorial disputes and nation-building. On the other hand, scholars also increasingly focus on borders or boundaries beyond or within territories, as constructed phenomena, sometimes informally implemented. This is a more interdisciplinary research stream, often subsumed under the literature of Border Studies.
In our paper, we draw from both streams. We focus on the discursive construction of territorial borders but refine a focus on the state by investigating one specific state actor: governments. As executive organs of the state body, governments are powerful decision-makers that decide about borders, yet democratically bound to inform the public about their decisions and so to legitimise them.
The strategic nature of governmental border communication
We analysed press releases from the German and Austrian governments (including chancelleries and all ministries) over 12 years from 2009 to 2020. Press releases are useful tools for governments to inform the public about their decisions. They cater directly to the media and are important agenda-setting tools in public debates. Our analysis provides both an overview over the last decade of governmental border communication and more nuanced insights into the discursive construction of borders at times of crisis.
Our most important finding from this analysis is that governmental border communication is a matter of strategy and governmental interest, meaning that borders are communicated as being ‘open’ or ‘closed’ depending on what suits the government’s interest best. In particular, this communication depends on whether governments want to communicate a certain sense of political urgency, for example, about migration (‘closed borders’) or elucidate support for collaboration, cultural and scientific exchange in times of stability (‘open borders’). Often, there is consequently no specific time for when borders are communicated as only open or closed.
We highlight the similarities and differences between Austrian and German government communication in our paper, but it is particularly noteworthy that governmental border communication is shifting between ‘openness’ or ‘closedness’. This shifting is not always connected to actual border politics, despite changing party-constellations in both governments over the years. Governmental border communication is therefore an instrument to convince the public about the governments’ decision and not so much to inform about actual border politics.
What we can learn from border communication
This finding suggests that governmental border communication is used as a strategy to justify and legitimise political decisions that portray not one unified notions of borders, but an, at first, seemingly conflicting one. Such conflicting notions of borders are part of the strategy: governments construct both an image of control and an image of openness and collaboration at the same time.
This finding is also important when considering European dis-/integration, which is also not a linear process. Here, a focus on governmental border communication can help to better understand how both integration and disintegration take place – and what role a ‘closed border issue’ like migration can play here.
The bigger problem, however, is the implication of strategic government communication itself. At least for the focus on borders that we have investigated in this article, it is difficult to see how this way of constructing the meaning of borders supports reliable and neutral informing of the public and so democratic public opinion-formation. It rather seems that what we are looking at is persuasion that the decisions taken are without alternatives.
A concluding note on research design
Finally, a few words on methodology and related future research avenues. We use a mixed-methods approach to explore a large corpus of data over time to start building and conceptualising strategic border communication. We found that computational methods combined with qualitative methods are an excellent way to dive into the big data of government communication and draw out its nuances.
Beyond that, our research is only a starting point. Frame and narrative analysis could help to carve out how different actors engage with governments’ construction of borders, how they contest it, or categorise potential differences between ministries. Critical discourse analysis is essential to work out the power imbalances in contemporary European border politics expressed in governments’ strategic border communication. Importantly, we need more comparative research on larger corpuses as well.
Our study presents a first access point to better understand the ad hoc, strategical-political side of European border politics, from which new ideas can be developed. This is because today it is more important than ever to hold governments accountable for what they say, how they say it, and to whom.
Verena K. Brändle is a Senior Research Fellow at the Computational Communication Science Lab, University of Vienna, and leads the project ‘Informing to dissuade? Governments’ digital information campaigns for migrants as bordering practices’, supported by the Independent Research Fund Denmark.
Olga Eisele is an Assistant Professor at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research at Amsterdam University. Her research focuses on political crisis communication and legitimacy as well as on advances in content analysis.
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