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Annie Niessen

Tweeting for legitimacy: exploring soft power in EU leaders’ discourse during the Covid-19 and Russo-Ukrainian crises

(4/2023 - Resilience of global regionalism in times of crises)
Open Access
Index de mots-clés : European Union, soft power, crises, legitimacy, Covid-19 pandemic, Russian invasion, Ukraine.


In the past two decades, the European Union (EU) has confronted numerous crises that have jeopardized the legitimacy of its institutions and its actions, threatening the EU’s domestic and international legitimacy. However, crises also present opportunities for the EU to assert itself by implementing effective policies, fostering cooperation among Member States, and bolstering its legitimacy as a significant actor and crisis manager. Normative ideas aligned with society’s values and interests have emerged as helpful tools for framing and justifying policy choices in a way that can increase public support and the EU’s legitimacy. Such ideas are disseminated through leaders’ discourses, particularly on social media, as part of a soft power strategy aimed at attracting, rather than coercing, both domestic and international audiences. Analyzing leaders’ discourses offers critical insights into the use of soft power within international institutions and its potential to shape perceptions, ultimately strengthening their legitimacy. This paper examines the soft power references to the normative ideas of unity, solidarity, and values incorporated in the Twitter communications of three prominent EU leaders – Ursula Von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and Josep Borrell – during the Covid-19 and Ukrainian crises. The analysis reveals that these leaders delivered a coordinated discourse, using cross-pollinated soft power references during these crises. This approach demonstrates their efforts to turn crises into opportunities that strengthen the EU’s legitimacy and relevance, contributing to a more resilient future. This study contributes to advance academic understanding of the EU’s soft power strategy, legitimation discourse, and crisis management.


1In the past two decades, the European Union (EU) has been badly hit by various crises. During these uncertain times, EU Member States may be tempted to pursue unilateral actions rather than cooperating with other member states, undermining the effective functioning of EU governance. Furthermore, frequent intergovernmental bargaining and the resulting incremental, yet often incomplete, reforms have portrayed the EU as entangled in a constant crisis. As such, crises can jeopardize the legitimacy of the EU, its institutions, and its actions, posing a dangerous threat to the EU’s domestic and international relevance.

2However, amidst the chaos, crises can also create opportunities for the EU to assert and distinguish itself by implementing effective policies, fostering cooperation among Member States, and bolstering its legitimacy as a significant actor and crisis manager. Normative ideas, when aligned with society’s values and interests, become helpful tools for framing and justifying policy choices in a way that can increase public support and the EU’s legitimacy. Such normative ideas can be disseminated through leaders’ discourses, particularly through their social media channels, enabling direct communication with citizens. This approach is an integral component of a soft power strategy aimed at convincing both domestic and international audiences of the validity of policy choices and the EU’s relevance through attraction rather than coercion.

3The analysis of leaders’ discourses is crucial for understanding the use of soft power within international institutions and its potential to influence global and domestic perceptions, ultimately bolstering the legitimacy of these institutions. This paper analyzes the soft power references to normative ideas of unity, solidarity, and values that EU leaders incorporated in their Twitter communication amidst the Covid-19 and Ukrainian crises. The theoretical underpinnings of the paper builds on the intricate connections between crises, legitimacy, soft power, and discursive ideas. Methodologically, the paper analyzes a corpus of references to these three normative ideas during the two crises in the Twitter communications of three prominent EU leaders: Ursula Von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and Josep Borrell.

4While this paper is part of a broader research project on EU institutions’ legitimacy discourses in times of crisis, the empirical dataset was originally compiled for the purpose of this study. Although the results presented here are preliminary, they shed light on significant patterns in political leadership and institutional communication, which will be further examined in subsequent studies. The findings of this specific study indicate that EU leaders attempted to stimulate cooperation among Member States, promote resilience and efficiency, and highlight collective success in crisis management by emphasizing the importance of unity, solidarity, and values. The overall outcome suggests that these three EU leaders delivered a coordinated discourse using cross-pollinated soft power references amid the two crises, reflecting their efforts to turn these crises into opportunities to strengthen the EU’s legitimacy and relevance. Consequently, this paper contributes to advance scholarly understanding of the EU’s soft power strategy, legitimation discourse, and crisis management.

Crises and Legitimacy

5In times of crises, the stability of governance faces significant challenges, often accompanied by uncertainty and disruptions (Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius, 2005; Coombs, 2007). Criticisms directed at the EU’s decisions or inactions can have a dual impact, potentially eroding institutional legitimacy and straining unity and solidarity among populations. Indeed, crises can typically be symmetric – affecting all Member States in a relatively similar way, like the pandemic – or asymmetric – affecting only some Member States negatively, like the war in Ukraine. They can also be exogenous – developing from external factors – or endogenous – having internal causes. While their symmetry was different, these two exogenous crises put the collaborative capabilities of the Member States to the test.

6Furthermore, while some crises are unforeseen, others result from policy failure and incomplete integration due to intergovernmental bargaining among EU Member States and incremental reforms (Jones et al., 2015; Jones, Kelemen, and Meunier, 2021; Dimitrakopoulos and Lalis, 2021). The resulting process of “failing forward” (Jones et al., 2015), characterized by the reinforcement of the EU’s authority and the advancement of the integration process through the implementation of incomplete and temporary solutions (Jones et al., 2015; Brack and Gürkan, 2021), tends to portray the EU as entangled in a perpetual crisis (Jones et al., 2015).

7However, crises can also present opportunities for the EU to distinguish itself through effective policies, foster cooperation among Member States, bolster its reputation, and enhance its legitimacy as a prominent political actor and crisis manager. Legitimation becomes especially crucial during severe and enduring crises, such as those in public health and security, necessitating policy adaptations (Schmidt and Radaelli, 2004). The legitimacy of the EU and its policies hinges on various criteria, ranging from policy performance to transparent decision-making processes and policies aligning with societal values and needs. As such, legitimacy can be assessed across dimensions (Majone, 1998; Matthijs, 2017; Risse, 2010; Scharpf, 1999; 2017; Schmidt, 2006; Tsoukalis, 2016).

8A common normative approach to understanding EU legitimacy involves distinguishing between input, throughput, and output legitimacy (Scharpf, 1999; Schmidt, 2013). Input legitimacy requires active political participation by citizens in the decision-making processes, alongside the EU’s responsiveness to their concerns (Scharpf, 1999; Schmidt, 2013). Output legitimacy entails the efficiency of policy performances and outcomes (Scharpf, 1970, 1997, 1999; Schmidt, 2013). Between input participation and output performance, throughput legitimacy concerns the quality of what happens within the black box – or the inner workings – of decision-making processes (Schmidt, 2013). Throughput legitimacy primarily requires “efficacious governing with the people through processes that are accountable, transparent, inclusive and open to interest intermediation” (Cartensen and Schmidt, 2018, p. 758; see also Schmidt, 2013; Diessner, 2022).

9Although Member States organize elections for their national representatives, EU-level input legitimacy often appears weak. Certainly, the co-decision procedure and enhanced stakeholder consultation have improved input participation (Chatzopoulou, 2015); however, the absence of direct EU-level elections and collective identity, or a European demos (Weiler, 2010), i.e., “a group of people, the majority of whom feel sufficiently connected to each other to voluntarily commit to a democratic discourse and to a related decision-making process” (Cederman, 2001, p. 224), keep EU input legitimacy rather frail (Schmidt, 2020) and overall political legitimacy hard to develop (Beetham and Lord, 2014). Indeed, when a population identifies with another population sharing similar cultural features and objectives, it tends to create coherence and solidarity (Innerarity, 2014) which may result in a willingness to govern together. Output legitimacy varies based on policy outcomes and how effectively policies address stakeholder needs. Throughput legitimacy can be enhanced by increasing transparency and providing proper justifications for decision-making processes by political and institutional actors (Schillemans, 2008; Seeger et al., 2018).

10In this context, communication holds a pivotal role in the legitimization process. If EU actors can effectively explain why and how policies respond to stakeholder needs, public perception of the legitimacy of both the EU and its policy choices is likely to improve (Schmidt and Radaelli, 2004). While effective communication cannot offset low participation of the citizens or bad policy output (Schmidt, 2016), it can positively influence public perceptions of the legitimacy of policy choices “by altering perceptions of problems and legacies and by influencing preferences” (Schmidt and Radaelli, 2004, p. 186).

The Role of Normative Ideas for Legitimacy

11In exploring the significance of public perception for legitimacy, some scholars have delved into how EU institutions strategically employ ideas to convince stakeholders (Cartensen and Schmidt, 2018). Indeed, legitimacy is closely tied to “normative ideas about what is appropriate and acceptable in political action and policy practices” (Carstensen and Schmidt, 2018, p. 756). These ideas are conveyed to stakeholders through institutional discourse (Schmidt, 2008), serving as a lever for legitimizing policy change or continuity (Schmidt and Radaelli, 2004). This analytical approach falls under the umbrella of discursive institutionalism which seeks to explain changes and continuities in politics by contextualizing ideas within discourse (Schmidt, 2008).

12Compared to other approaches that concentrate on the substantive content of ideas – such as ideational institutionalism (Hay, 2001), strategic constructivism (Jabko, 2006), and constructivist institutionalism (Hay, 2006) – discursive institutionalism also emphasizes the “communicative discourse” occurring between political actors and the public. Scholars engaging with discursive institutionalism may investigate how institutions construct and recontextualize various ideas in their discourse (Niessen, 2020) or use various methods to analyze the causal influence – the transformative power – of ideas, demonstrating how they induce change or continuity in political action (Schmidt, 2008).

13Research has shown that the EU’s communication, both through traditional and social media channels, promotes ideas about democracy, Europe’s history, neoliberal considerations, and the notion of a European demos (Krzyżanowski, 2010, 2015, 2018). Notably, the idea of Europeanness and Europe’s pre-institutional history serve as foundations for discursively constructing the EU’s self-presentation as a leading foreign actor (Krzyżanowski, 2010, 2015). Values, in particular, act as interpretative frameworks that structure political interests and identities, ultimately contributing to increased public support for policy choices and developing legitimacy (Foret and Trino, 2022). Even if the sense of a European identity is weak or absent, the idea of solidarity, for instance, reinforces the idea of a common objective and fosters a ‘we-feeling’ that is especially valuable during crises (Anghel and Jones, 2022).

14In fact, values, solidarity, European unity, and similar ideas have played pivotal roles throughout the process of European integration. Besides the fact that the EU embodies the idea of unity, as a “Union” of states, EU law also enshrines a set of values in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail.

15These values not only form part of the enlargement conditionality, as enshrined in Article 49 of the same treaty, but also feature prominently in speeches and official documents (Karamouzi and De Angelis, 2017; Niessen, 2020).

Soft Power: A Tool for Foreign and Domestic Legitimation

16While it is important to emphasize some theoretical distinctions between “soft power” (Nye, 2004, 2011), i.e., the power of persuasion through seduction and attraction, and “normative power” (Manners, 2002), i.e., a power capable of affirming itself through the exportation of its own norms and values, these two concepts bear a profound connection and applicability within the context of the EU. Normative power is rooted in the EU’s inherent characteristics as a supranational entity, meaning that it is not merely a function of what the EU says or does but rather a reflection of what it is (Manners, 2002). Conversely, soft power emanates from deliberate actions and policies that promote benevolent norms and values, rather than being an intrinsic feature of an actor (Nye, 2011).

17As the EU has progressively honed its ability to deliberately leverage its values and norms as a force of attraction and persuasion to maximize its influence, it has increasingly evolved into a normative power. However, the deliberate propagation of these norms and values through discourse, especially during crises, allows for an analysis of the EU as an actor relying on soft power to achieve its objectives. While we acknowledge that legitimation also occurs through the EU’s normative power, this paper focuses on deliberate discursive references traditionally associated with soft power strategies.

18Indeed, soft power entails a wide range of values, ideas, and policies that are ideally consistent with the political entity’s interests and values (Nye, 2004; Cerutti, 2008). For instance, the values defined in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union align with democratic and so-called universal values, enhancing the EU’s capacity for soft power compared to non-democratic entities (Nye, 2004). Additionally, culture and cultural heritage can serve as meaningful resources to enhance a political entity’s soft power and legitimacy (Nye, 2004).

19Since the 1980s, the EU has frequently relied on the respect of certain values and principles in the context of enlargement conditionality and as incentives for assistance or trade advantages, to persuade and seduce foreign actors (Diez, 2005; Manners and Diez, 2007; Manners, 2002; Niessen, 2020; Tulmets, 2007). In the post-Cold War era, soft power has gained recognition as an equally – if not more – important asset compared to coercive power. For instance, during a recent press conference on the Strategic Compass for a stronger EU security and defense, EU High Representative Josep Borrell emphasized that the goal is not to create a European army but rather to leverage the EU’s power of persuasion and unity among Member States to thwart Russia’s efforts (Borrell, 2022).

20Domestically, soft power is equally important. The intergovernmental dynamics at play within the EU necessitate bridging cultural and political practice differences that often lead to complex governance. EU Member States must remain persuaded that European cooperation is the best option, especially in times of crisis when they tend to prioritize their own good – one of the causes of the “failing forward” (Jones et al., 2016) dynamics mentioned earlier. The latest examples of such “failing forward” processes are the Covid-19 health crisis and the security crisis triggered by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. These crises prompted combined economic and political efforts at the EU level to secure vaccines, impose sanctions on Russia, and address the resulting energy crisis.

21To encourage cooperation among Member States and strengthen the EU’s relevance and legitimacy during these two crises, EU leaders have engaged in sustained communication efforts (Lucarelli, Cerutti, and Schmidt, 2011). Promoting the EU through soft power ideas played a pivotal role in uniting Member States around common concerns arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukraine war. Soft power is inherently tied to its representation, i.e., to the performance of discourses to shape reality (Diez, 2005), which brings us back to the critical role of ideas in enhancing legitimacy.

Tweeting for Legitimacy Amidst Crises: An Analysis of the References to ‘Unity’, ‘Solidarity’, and ‘Values’


22For this study, we chose to focus on three normative ideas: unity, solidarity, and values. These ideas are enshrined in EU treaties and in many national constitutions. As such, they align with most European societies’ interests and objectives. They are typically positively portrayed and are often regarded as universal, aligning with Joseph Nye’s argument that the respect and promotion of universal norms and values enhance the attractiveness of a political entity. These references form part of the EU’s soft power paraphernalia and may be helpful tools during crises.

23Twitter serves as an ideal corpus for this study due to several reasons. Firstly, Twitter is a widely-used platform for political communication and public diplomacy, allowing leaders to disseminate messages to a broad and diverse audience. Secondly, the platform’s brevity encourages concise and strategic messaging, making it a rich source for examining the deliberate use of key terms. Thirdly, the nature of this social network ensures that leaders’ responses to evolving crises are produced in a near real-time fashion. Finally, Twitter provides a publicly accessible and easily searchable dataset, facilitating systematic data collection and enabling transparency in the research process.

24To build our dataset, we conducted specific queries on Twitter for the relevant terms (“unity,” “solidarity”, and “values”) within the Twitter accounts of three EU leaders: Ursula Von der Leyen (president of the European Commission, @vonderleyen), Charles Michel (president of the European Council, @eucopresident), and Josep Borrell (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, @JosepBorrellF) during delimited periods of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian crisis. The time spans for data collection were carefully selected to encompass the inception and early progression of each crisis: from March 13, 2020, when Europe became the epicenter of the pandemic (World Health Organization, 2020), to March 12, 2021, for the Covid-19 pandemic, and from February 13, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, to February 12, 2023, for the Russo-Ukrainian crisis.

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25In total, we identified 91 tweets that met our criteria across the two crises: 18 tweets for Josep Borrell, 15 tweets for Ursula Von der Leyen, and 8 tweets for Charles Michel during the Covid-19 pandemic (see Appendix I); 14 tweets for Josep Borrell; 14 tweets for Ursula Von der Leyen; and 22 tweets for Charles Michel during the Russo-Ukrainian war (see Appendix II).

26The collected tweets were subjected to qualitative content analysis. This process involved not only the extraction of textual content but also an examination of the surrounding context to understand the intended messages and use of these terms by EU leaders. These tweets serve as the primary data source for our study, enabling us to delve into the discursive strategies employed by EU leaders to project soft power during times of global challenge.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

27During the early stages of the pandemic, Charles Michel emphasized the importance of unity and solidarity within the EU in two contexts. Firstly, he highlighted that “Unity and solidarity will always guide our actions” (25 March 2020) – both within the EU institutions and the Member States – to fight the virus, protect EU citizens, and mitigate the economic repercussions of the crisis. Intrinsically, Michel conveyed the message that EU Member States commit to remain united and show solidarity as they tackle this global crisis within their borders. As the pandemic was a symmetric crisis, impacting all Member States, yet at very different paces and levels, cooperation can quickly dwindle as national leaders focus on their own country’s situation. By stressing the need to show solidarity, Michel reiterates the importance of maintaining cooperation at all times.

28Secondly, Michel advocated for “international solidarity” (3 December 2020) to access vaccines and combat the pandemic, using the term as a synonym for international cooperation and multilateralism. Most specifically, Michel relies on solidarity to justify the EU’s support to the countries without the necessary resources to fight the pandemic as efficiently as high-income countries, particularly in Africa. His discourse draws attention to the long-term benefits of managing the pandemic globally and showing international solidarity.

29Thirdly, Charles Michel integrated the concept of solidarity into the EU’s core values, aligning it with democracy and human rights within the framework of the EU’s Strategic Partnership with the Republic of Korea:

Democracy. Human rights. Solidarity. Today’s Leader’s meeting put a spotlight on the common values that underpin our relationship. Our Strategic Partnership is 10-years strong and getting stronger to overcome #COVID19 (30 June 2020).

30This tweet elevated solidarity to a value comparable to human rights and democracy, strengthening the EU’s commitment to fostering solidarity among its member states and in its relations with like-minded partners.

31Similarly, Josep Borrell also emphasized the significance of international cooperation, multilateralism, solidarity, and unity in responding to the pandemic. Like Charles Michel, he called for solidarity and cooperation between the EU and its international partners (e.g., 30 March 2020; 15 December 2020; 21 January 2021). As the pandemic is global, it must be managed globally to enhance the chance for “collective success” (30 March 2020) – especially when it comes to vaccination and economic recovery.

32Borrell also advocated unity and solidarity among EU Member States (27 March 2020; 10 April 2020; 30 January 2021), believing that “our internal unity determines our external strength” (23 July 2020). Even if Member States are impacted differently by the pandemic, they should take this opportunity to strengthen unity and “better organize solidarity” (1 September 2020) among Europeans with the aim of improving the EU’s resilience during future crises.

33Ursula Von der Leyen’s Twitter discourse on the pandemic consistently championed the term “solidarity”. In her discourses, the ideas of cooperation, coordination, and being stronger together support the importance of solidarity at both the European and international levels. She highlighted how “European solidarity” (30 January 2021) and “EU solidarity” (1 December 2020; 11 March 2021) were essential for securing medical equipment, developing treatments, and providing economic relief. Overall, such a “solidarity in action” (24 March 2020) was advocated as the tool for tackling the pandemic more efficiently.

34Throughout the analyzed period, Von der Leyen scarcely referred to “values”. However, she argued that the pandemic reminded Europeans of the value of what they have in common, which fostered trust and unity among Europeans and EU institutions:

In the face of the deepest health crisis, Europeans rediscovered the value of what we hold in common. We turned distrust & disunity between Member States into trust & unity in our Union. We showed what’s possible when we have faith in each other & faith in our EU institutions (7 October 2020).

35The value of cooperation, unity, and solidarity is implicitly highlighted throughout her discourse which mostly revolves around the positive results of EU Covid-19 policies rather than the issues to be solved. This positive discourse conveys the idea that the pandemic is an opportunity to build trust and unity, to further enhance solidarity, and to further work together to strengthen Europe.

The Russo-Ukrainian War

36In the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Charles Michel linked solidarity with unity. On the day of the invasion, he tweeted that the EU would be “united in its solidarity” (24 February 2022) to emphasize EU Member States’ solidarity with Ukraine, its people, its territorial integrity, its sovereignty, the neighbor countries who must assume unexpected waves of Ukrainian refugees, and the refugees themselves. This tweet conveyed the idea that all EU Member States are united and assumed the decision to support Ukraine; it was not only a decision taken at the supranational level, but it was also a choice made by all EU Member States who decided to condemn Russia’s actions and show solidarity with Ukraine.

37Michel did not only underscore the importance of unity among EU Member States. He also reminded the need for unity between the EU and its like-minded “partners” (21, 24, 26, and 28 February 2022) or “allies” (28 February and 23 March 2022), guaranteeing, for example, that the “EU and its partners will react with unity, firmness and determination in solidarity” (21 February 2022). These partners include NATO and other international organizations, institutions, and countries condemning Russia’s actions.

38Unity was also employed to emphasize the need for coordination in the actions taken against Russia. For instance, Michel started his 30 May 2022 tweet with “#unity” to inform his audience about the agreement among member states to ban Russian oil from being imported to the EU. Hashtag unity to start the tweet immediately drew attention to the fact that unfailing unity among EU member states facilitated such an agreement.

39In addition to solidarity and unity, tweets referring to “values” were also present in Michel’s discourses, often including the idea of European moral standards, as in the below tweet:

We are seeing the birth of a common European political conscience. EU leaders are determined to show solidarity with #Ukraine. Confronted with war, we look in the same direction. Follow the same instinct. Because our instinct is based on common European values (12 March 2022).

40Michel’s communication consistently underscored the unwavering commitment to unity and the defense of key values. For instance, he reiterated the importance of the “defense of our values” (17 February 2022), “democracy” (23 March 2022), “European values” (23 March 2022), and “the values of Europe, of freedom and democracy” (6 April 2022). These recurrent references, however, do not delve into the specific nature of these values beyond freedom and democracy. Instead, they draw on the broader notions of Europe and Europeanness, emphasizing the imperative “to be true Europeans” (6 April 2022) who stand by their values. Such a discourse may encourage the domestic audience to embrace these values as intrinsic to European citizenship, while also making the international audience appeal to the EU.

41Understandably, Josep Borrell’s discourses predominantly centered on the EU’s military and geostrategic cooperation with like-minded partners and allies, such as “transatlantic unity” with NATO (4 March 2022), to justify involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. However, he also highlighted the need to unite and defend values that are common to the EU and Ukraine: “Ukrainians have proven their determination to meet their European destiny (…)” by fighting for freedom, democracy, and other key EU values. As such, Borrell called on EU Member States and like-minded democracies to stand alongside Ukraine because “we are united by values and history. Together, we are Europe” (17 June 2022).

42Additionally, Borrell advocated for unity at the European level to address the consequential energy, security, and food challenges. He argued that “our unity is our strength” (30 May 2022) and that this unity can reinforce the EU’s ability to uphold its principles and values. In his words:

This crisis has also reminded us of our shortcomings in the area of security and defence and that we need more capabilities to defend our principles and values. To do this, the EU and our unity are the biggest assets we have (6 Apr. 2022).

43In Borrell’s Twitter discourse, maintaining unity is presented as a means of enhancing the EU’s values and the mechanisms to protect them. As such, this crisis also represents an opportunity to advance the EU’s interests and promote its values beyond its borders by projecting a united front instead of displaying dissensions.

44Interestingly, Borrell also mentioned solidarity in connection with the Russians who share values of peace and democracy with Europeans (27 February 2022). This is a distinctive feature not observed in the Twitter discourses of the two other leaders. Additionally, Borrell also highlighted the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine and the neighboring countries undergoing repercussions of the conflict, such as Poland and Moldova (15 November 2022 and 21 December 2022).

45Ursula Von der Leyen’s discourses in the year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine emphasized that “Ukrainians are fighting to defend our common values” (11 September 2022 and 2 February 2023). Ukraine’s fight for democratic values was framed as a defense of democratic values shared by EU Member States. In a tweet, she called on neighboring countries that uphold similar values to join in the fight for these values and champion them on the global stage, emphasizing the importance of cultivating unity with surrounding countries to propagate European values beyond the EU’s borders:

We have to reach out to all countries from like-minded democracies, to others who share our interests. We must bring our neighbourhood closer. We must promote our interests and advance our values, all across the world (12 October 2022).

46Likewise, references to “solidarity” primarily focus on the imperative to show solidarity with Ukraine and its people. As she pointed out, “solidarity with Ukraine is growing ever stronger” (17 January 2023) as the EU supports recovery and reconstruction following Russia’s invasion.

47Additionally, Von der Leyen encourages solidarity with countries welcoming Ukrainian refugees and undergoing Russia’s attacks at their borders (15 November 2022). Nevertheless, she also emphasized the need for solidarity and unity among Europeans during the energy crisis: “We shall overcome with our European strength – our unity and our solidarity” (7 September 2022 and 17 November 2022).

Soft Power Discursive Strategies: Strengthening EU Legitimacy Amidst Crises

48During crises, governing institutions face significant challenges. Over the past two decades, the EU has encountered a succession of economic, health, and political crises. The solutions to these challenges, while incremental, have often felt fragmented. This has perpetuated the perception that the EU is in a perpetual state of crisis. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are distinct in many respects, they both have further tested the collaborative capacities of EU Member States and placed the EU’s legitimacy in question, whether as a crisis manager or as a relevant actor on the global stage.

49Additionally, as input legitimacy remains frail in the EU and output performance may be complex to evaluate during the early stages of crises, communicating about the inner workings of EU governance can enhance its throughput legitimacy. It involves emphasizing shared values, unity, and solidarity as drivers behind decisions, rather than focusing solely on concrete policies and actions. These references, which are consistent with the society’s values and interests, come within the range of the EU’s soft power strategy, aiming to persuade through attraction rather than coercion.

50Soft power can operate through discourses, where EU leaders promote values and other normative ideas to seduce and maximize influence, both globally and domestically. Indeed, just as foreign actors must perceive the EU as a relevant and influential entity, EU Member States must remain convinced that European cooperation is their best option, particularly when tempted to act unilaterally. To encourage cooperation among Member States and strengthen the EU’s relevance and legitimacy during the Covid-19 and Ukrainian crises, EU leaders have engaged in sustained communication efforts. More specifically, they employed soft power references to frame and justify policy choices, and promote resilience, efficiency, and collective success in crisis management in a way that may increase public support and the EU’s legitimacy.

51During the Covid-19 pandemic, the three analyzed EU leaders built on the global aspects of the crisis to emphasize the importance of collaboration, multilateralism, and cooperation in order to counter the rise of individualism and unilateral actions. Charles Michel emphasized unity and solidarity within the EU and on the international stage, portraying the pandemic as an opportunity for the EU to showcase international solidarity and strengthen its commitment to values. Josep Borrell highlighted the importance of international cooperation and unity among EU Member States, emphasizing that unity strengthens the EU’s external actions and values. Ursula Von der Leyen consistently championed the term “solidarity” in her discourse, highlighting European unity and cooperation and underlining how the pandemic allowed Europeans to rediscover the value of their commonalities.

52Likewise, solidarity and unity at the European and global levels were deemed crucial to ensure continued support for Ukrainian citizens and neighboring countries facing waves of Ukrainian refugees, as well as synchronized sanctions against Russia. Charles Michel used the concepts of solidarity, unity, and European values to express support for Ukraine and to justify the EU’s stance against Russia. He emphasized the need for EU Member States and partners to unite in defense of shared values. Josep Borrell mainly focused on EU military and geostrategic cooperation with partners, like NATO. He also highlighted the need to defend common values and called for unity at both the EU and transatlantic levels. Ursula Von der Leyen framed Ukraine’s fight for democratic values as a defense of values shared by EU Member States. She advocated for unity among like-minded democracies and emphasized the importance of promoting European values worldwide.

53These soft power references draw on the idea that EU Member States are stronger when they remain united and show solidarity towards each other: for if one state falls, it is the whole ensemble that crumbles. The references to values support the claim for unity and solidarity during these crises. While mostly undefined in the leaders’ tweets, values are typically positively portrayed and are often regarded as universal, aligning with Joseph Nye’s argument in 2004 that such universality enhances the attractiveness of a political entity. EU leaders relate these values to European identity, which further enhances the legitimacy of their anti-crisis actions since these actions are guided by the values approved by society. Overall, unity, solidarity, and values are adduced as seduction and attraction tools to both help Ukraine and strengthen the EU’s interests and influence in Europe and the world.

54Overall, EU leaders delivered a coordinated discourse, using cross-pollinated soft power ideas amidst the two crises. This illustrates how they attempted to turn these crises into an opportunity to strengthen the legitimacy and relevance of the EU. While crises may pose threats to unity and solidarity among EU Member States, EU leaders also demonstrate how crises can be opportunities to reinforce unity and solidarity among Europeans and Member States that share common values, ultimately building a more resilient future.


55In conclusion, the EU has navigated through two tumultuous decades marked by various crises, putting its legitimacy to the test. These crises have not only tempted Member States to pursue unilateral actions, endangering cooperation at the European level, but they also resulted in intergovernmental bargaining and incomplete solutions, leading to the perception that the EU is entangled in a constant crisis. This dual challenge has posed a significant threat to the EU’s domestic and international relevance.

56However, amidst these crises, the EU has found ways to bolster its legitimacy as a significant actor and crisis manager. Normative ideas, aligned with societal values and interests, have played a crucial role in framing and justifying policy choices. Such ideas have been disseminated through leaders’ discourses, particularly on social media, as part of a soft power strategy aimed at attracting rather than coercing domestic and international audiences.

57The analysis of leaders’ discourses has shed light on the use of soft power within international institutions and its potential to influence perceptions, ultimately enhancing the legitimacy of these institutions. Through an examination of the soft power references to unity, solidarity, and values in the Twitter communications of three prominent EU leaders – Ursula Von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and Josep Borrell – during the Covid-19 and Ukrainian crises, this paper has shown that EU leaders attempted to encourage cooperation among Member States, promote resilience and efficiency, and emphasize collective success in crisis management by highlighting the significance of unity, solidarity, and values. The overall outcome suggests that the three EU leaders have delivered a coordinated discourse, using cross-pollinated soft power references, in their efforts to transform these two crises into opportunities that strengthen the EU’s legitimacy and relevance, ultimately building a more resilient future.

58This study contributed to the academic understanding of the EU’s soft power strategy, legitimation discourse, and crisis management efforts. While the presented results are preliminary, they provide valuable insights into the role of normative ideas and leadership in shaping the EU’s response to crises. Further research will continue to explore these discursive dynamics within EU institutions and their implications for the EU’s evolving role on the global stage.


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To cite this article

Annie Niessen, «Tweeting for legitimacy: exploring soft power in EU leaders’ discourse during the Covid-19 and Russo-Ukrainian crises», The Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues/La Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux [En ligne], 4/2023 - Resilience of global regionalism in times of crises, URL :

About: Annie Niessen


Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania (United States) and lecturer at the University of Liège (Belgium).