Following the resignation of chief Brexit negotiator David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the news agenda in the UK is, again, dominated by Brexit. Notably sisyphean, recent UK political developments seem to be going two steps forward, three steps back, and are breeding uncertainty about the nation’s future. The apparent failure of ongoing internal negotiations are weakening outward negotiations with the European Union. And increasing ambiguity as to what a soft vs. hard Brexit* means is confusing the public. Nationally, we are seeing the media’s stances on the state of the nation differ greatly, and reporting on Brexit seems to be increasingly dichotomous. But, the EU consists of 28 member nations, for the time being anyway, and the UK is only one actor in the many Brexit conversations. So, what do people think on the continent?
Like the Franco-German coalition pondering the future of Europe, my colleague Gregor Riemann and I decided to join forces and look at the latest Brexit developments from the continental European perspective. Leveraging our respective linguistic skills and armed with our latest copies of Le Monde and Die Zeit, we analysed media coverage in France and Germany and shared insights into what drives conversations on the other side of the English Channel. Fortunately, we’re not the first to delve into this, and academia has taken first stabs at analysing sentiment. In a report published in February, titled, “Sympathetic but unconcerned: How Europe’s media cover Brexit”, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has provided us with some valuable insights.
In France, factual coverage with a hint of moquerie
Two years after the referendum, we note a certain fatigue and emotional detachment in France with regard to Brexit negotiations. Now commenting as an observer rather than a participant, my countrymen seem rather satisfied for the conversation to take place at an EU-UK level. While making a balanced use of British sources and viewpoints for their coverage, French journalists still embrace a certain “parti pris” and tend to focus on challenges for the UK rather than for France or the EU (as highlighted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism).
Not tired of experts yet, we see that reporting is often complemented by research and analysis of facts rather than passionate declarations, making for informative reporting of a complex and multifaceted issue. Added to this rather factual coverage of recent developments, of course, is a touch of home-made mockery for good measure.
Far from the CAPITAL-LETTER headlines used by British tabloids, the relative sobriety of French reporting on Brexit negotiations can surprise. However, we also note a Macron-inspired news trend: national business pages never miss an opportunity to highlight a business’ decision to invest in France rather than Britain.
Living in London, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine that Brexit is not at the heart of every conversation. The reality is that for the UK’s best frenemy, Brexit is mainly perceived as a business issue to be dealt with by the EU, and falls to the bottom of a national agenda dominated by immigration, Macron’s reforms and, lately, football.
In Deutschland, nationalistic policies leave a bitter aftertaste
Though notorious for its Schadenfreude, the German media seems to primarily report Brexit developments from an objective angle, with a hint of its classic complacency. The news coverage primarily sides with the EU on issues, rather than pushing a German political agenda. However, coverage in left-leaning newspapers, such as Sueddeutsche Zeitung, seem to question any EU critical developments with more scrutiny. Business- and finance- heavy publications such as Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung (FAZ) and Handelsblatt focus on Brexit’s economic impact – with emphasis on potential repercussions to the German economy, and where the EU may be able to absorb talent, e.g., Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris.
Based on the reporting, much of German media seems to be interested in understanding the cultural and economic reasoning behind Britain’s departure from the EU. Historically, and socio-culturally, the German public has developed a strong skepticism towards movements deemed overly nationalistic or negligent of communities. Because of this shared history, the proposed departure is difficult for many to grasp. A number of left-leaning authors seem to conflate a departure from the EU with a departure from Europe. Counter-culturally, however, a growing chunk of the population, e.g., AfD voters**, critically eye the governance structure of the European Union and question Angela Merkel’s migration policies.
Overarchingly, it is important to note that despite the coverage, public sentiment seems to be that Brexit will not significantly impact Germany or the European Union. It’s a point of conversation, but only to the politically interested or frustrated.
Reporting in numbers
Though different in semantics and approaches, Germany and France are broadly reporting from a UK perspective on Brexit developments – Germany 69% and France 79.3%. Notably different is that Germany’s media is approximately three times more likely to report from an EU perspective at 20.5%, and more than twice as likely to report from a national perspective at 8.5%. France on the other hand, is nearly five times as likely to take ‘another’ national perspective at 9.9%. (Reuters Institute, Oxford University, 2018)
The study further states, “Contrary to popular assumptions that news media are biased and opinionated, the study found that European Brexit coverage was predominantly fact-based. Most (78%) analysed news items took no position in relation to Brexit. Only 22% conveyed a clear opinion.”
Understanding media and societal landscapes is crucial when decoding articles and analysing reports – but, importantly, it allows us to effectively advise clients on intercultural differences. What these reporting styles mean for the future of Brexit and, more importantly, the UK remains uncertain, but it does offer a glimpse into how the topic is being treated beyond Britain.
Gregor Riemann contributed to this article.
Soft Brexit = Departure from the EU but maintaining parts of the Customs Union and/or Single Market, staying a quasi-EU member without voting power and (perhaps) with less constraints on its sovereignty.
As membership of the European Union is rooted in four core and indivisible principles, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour; implications of the format of Brexit are going to be decisive in shaping the future of the country, from trade agreements and immigration to investments and rule of law.
** The AfD is the “Alternative fuer Deutschland” — alternative party for Germany — a right wing party that is growing in membership in Germany, which has been facing criticism for a range of internal and external issues. Read more on Wikipedia.