Theme 2: Studying Political Leaders in the Financial Crisis


  • Enhance our understanding of how political leadership was enacted during the financial crisis
  • Explore dominant policy ideas, dominant discourses and citizen’s perceptions of Europe to understand the capacity of political crisis leadership
  • Enable a methodological assessment of political crisis leadership through the development of special software tools

This theme investigates the nexus of political leadership and legitimacy in the European Union with a specific focus on political leaders during the financial crisis. It provides empirically grounded insights in the interaction between their policy ideas, dominant discourses and citizen’s perceptions of Europe. As such, this study contributes to a better understanding of how political leaders may initiate sensible crisis measures while remaining responsive to dominant public discourses. We make use of special software tools that enables us to study leaders from a distance. This clarifies where, when and how leaders may help resolve the inherent tension between democratic legitimacy, political leadership and expertise that characterises much EU decision-making.

The Eurozone crisis is one of the most serious crises the European Union has experienced. As EU leaders in Brussels and the member states struggled to come up with solutions, old disputes about proper economic and fiscal policy as well as the form and depth of European integration re-emerged. European leaders were torn between the demands of capital markets and economic technocracy on the one hand, and the need to maintain their ‘license to operate’ and legitimacy among their domestic political constituencies on the other. Yet, the same leaders are also the actors best placed to change prevailing ideas underlying policy-making and incite necessary reforms. During periods of unexpected sudden economic and financial distress, dominant ideas can become vulnerable and challenged by alternative, competing ideas. This offers opportunities to infuse public and policy discourses with new ideas and initiate necessary reforms. However, it is not clear how leaders can offer leadership while maintaining legitimacy and remaining responsive to the public’s views.

This study answers the following questions:

  • How and to what extent leaders adopted ideas from the existing expert and public discourses about macroeconomic policy and European integration.
  • How and to what extent leaders infused these existing discourses with new ideas.
  • How and to what extent leaders’ ideas reflect views of their national constituents.

We focus on the leaders of nine EU member states: Germany, The Netherlands, Ireland, France, Spain, the UK, Hungary, Slovenia and Denmark. The country selection represents a representative sample in terms of geography, exposure to the financial crisis, and types of membership in the Eurozone. As different patterns of leadership and responsiveness may be expected of elected and non-elected leaders, the study includes the heads of state and government as well as central bank governors. In addition, we study the leaders of selected EU institutions (Commission, Council Secretariat, and ECB).

The study builds on, and extend, an existing data-base of cognitive maps of European leaders of the first two years of the crisis (2010-2011). Leaders’ cognitive maps are composed on the basis of public speeches, biographical accounts and secondary literature. Public discourses are studied by deriving maps from leaders and op-ed pieces in major European newspapers concerning Euro-crisis management. We have selected broadsheet newspapers that cover the political spectrum, while being attentive to the peculiarities of national media markets. To facilitate the composition and analysis of the cognitive maps a special software application, MAPS, is used.

In addition, cognitive maps are being elicited from 1000 individual citizens per country through an internet based study. Most research on citizens’ perceptions of the EU, like the Euro barometer, is based on surveys. In survey research, the questions presented to citizens are formulated top-down and one-dimensional and therefore do not necessarily fit citizens’ worldviews or allow for nuanced or ambivalent responses. Consequently, the results of such studies may distort the true meaning of the EU for its citizens and have become increasingly criticised.

In this theme, citizens’ views of the EU are elicited in a cognitively implicit and bottom-up manner by asking them to draw their personal cognitive map of the EU using the DART software application uniquely developed for this purpose. DART enables respondents to select concepts they associate most with the EU and indicate how, in their eyes, these concepts are linked by drawing (causal) arrows between the concepts. DART links the resulting cognitive maps to the data from a short survey on respondents demographic, political and socio-economic characteristics. Finally, DART can aggregate respondents’ cognitive maps along their characteristics and compose collective cognitive maps of relevant demographic or political groups of citizens.



The TransCrisis research themes:

Themes: Introduction

Theme 1: Understanding transboundary crisis management

Theme 2: Studying political leaders in the financial crisis

Theme 3: Political leadership, EU institutions and transboundary crisis management capacity

Theme 3.1 Crisis Management Capacity in the European Commission, Council of Ministers, and Council of the European Union

Theme 3.2 Crisis Leadership in the European Parliament

Theme 3.3 Political Leadership in EU agencies

Theme 4: Interaction between EU-national administrations in times of crisis

Theme 4.1 Political Leadership and Crisis Management Regimes

Theme 4.2 Managing the Immigration Crisis

Theme 5: Political leadership, national politics, and transboundary crisis management

Theme 6: Political leadership and the ‘new normal’: developing transboundary crisis leadership capacity