Written by Artem Kyzym

Introduction

On 23 June 2016, the British government held a referendum on a potential British exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union (EU). With a slim majority of 52%, voters cast their ballots in favour of leaving the economic union and for the first time in history, seceding from the club of member states. There were significant transnational implications as a result, with the national media in other member states playing a crucial role in covering and helping to inform the European public of those implications.

To some degree, the role of national media in portraying Brexit has been part of a wider discussion on the development of a ‘European Public Sphere’ – a common communicative space where European issues are discussed as a matter of concern for all. Accordingly, the portrayal of Brexit by different media and the circulation of various opinions on the vote among the member states contributes to the development of this in a number of ways. The purpose of this study is to  analyse media coverage on Brexit in three of Britain’s strategic partners (the trade and exports of which will be impacted the most by the British exit) — namely France, the Netherlands and Germany — in order to understand the impact of Brexit on the development of the European Public Sphere. 

European Public Sphere

Before attempting to conceptualise a ‘European’ Public Sphere, it is crucial to understand what a ‘Public Sphere’ — a somewhat nebulous term — actually is. Its definition could be traced back to what Habermas defined as the Öffentlichkeit – a place where opinions exit the private life and circulate, informing the public debate and contributing to the rational public opinion. However, following the subsequent translation of the Öffentlichkeit into various other languages, this concept has continuously morphed and transformed into what is now definable as the Public Sphere. Consequently, the Public Sphere consists of a common communicative space where individuals deliberate common concerns, and analyse and critique the political order in place (Eriksen, 2005, pp. 341 – 343; Schlesinger, 2007, p. 6). The ‘European’ Public Sphere would thus entail this communicative space but on a European level, where European issues would be “discussed as questions of common concern using similar frames of reference” (Risse & Van de Steeg, 2003, p. 2) and where national media would foster and inform this debate.

The reality of whether a European Public Sphere de facto exists was a highly contested question in the 1960s, resurfacing in political debates in the 1990s. Following these debates, two elements, or pillars on which the Public Sphere is built, are identifiable. The first of these pillars is the presence of democratic legitimacy and the second pillar is a common identity.

Primarily, the Public Sphere facilitates a discourse on the existing political order, which makes it possible for citizens to secure their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, hold politicians to account for their actions and overall contribute to the legitimisation of the sovereign government in power (Schlesinger, 2007, p. 6). On the European level, however, there is a clear lack of transparency in the European Parliament and a lack of pan-European media to provide for this transparency, which contributes to the democratic deficit of the European Union (Kaitatzi-Whitlock, 2007, p. 700). This democratic deficit goes hand in hand with the lack of common collective spaces where citizens deliberate European politics, hold European politicians to account and indeed legitimise the European institutions; in short, there is an absence of a Public Sphere at the European level.

Secondly, the Public Sphere presupposes a “homogenous culture and a united people who come together in public spaces to deliberate and decide about common concerns” (Eriksen, 2005, p. 343). In this case, a collective identity is a mandatory prerequisite in order to hold collective debate on issues of common concern. At the European level, however, due to the lack of common European organisations, social movements and a common language, there is, generally speaking, a lack of a collective European identity. This lack of a collective identity is further evidenced by the fact that only 3.9% of European citizens consider themselves exclusively European, 43.3% prioritize their national identities over that of the European and the largest part, 44% only consider their national identities with no place for a European one (Fligstein, 2009, p. 141). Accordingly, there is a lack of unity amongst European citizens in discussing common European issues, which prohibits the formation of a ‘community of communications’ at a European level.

Ultimately, given the perceived absence of democratic legitimacy and of a collective identity at the European level, it can be argued that no European Public Sphere as such currently exists. However, that is not to say that a European Public Sphere is not in the making – in fact, it would be misguided to assume otherwise. The fact that European institutions, such as the European Parliament, exist means that there is, of course, a significant degree of interconnectedness between European countries, which makes debate over transnational actors relevant. An example of a relevant debate is the ‘Haider Debate’ of 2000, where the inclusion of an Austrian right-wing party, namely the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), into a coalition government with the Austrian center-right, led to widespread protests in the rest of Europe (Van de Steeg, Rauer, Rivet, & Risse, 2003, p. 1). In this case, although the electoral victory of the FPÖ was a national feat, it undeniably had transnational implications and repercussions. 

Consequently, the idea of simultaneous debate occurring on the same topic at the same time throughout Europe implies that there is a transnational dimension to European issues that foster a common understanding among Europeans. The idea of including a right-wing party into a coalition government prompted a certain reaction from various European citizens, unifying them in protest against the inclusion of such a party into European politics, despite them not actually being Austrian. To this end, such unity contributes to the shared perception of commonness among different European national Public Spheres, which results in the Europeanization of these national Public Spheres and, ultimately, leading to their gradual amalgamation into a wider European Public Sphere (Eriksen, 2005, pp. 350 – 352).

On the one hand, Brexit too has a transnational dimension, like the Haider debate, and could contribute to the Europeanisation of national Public Spheres. This could be done by fostering a common understanding, among Europeans, of the implications of Brexit and uniting Europeans in their expression of concern over Brexit (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 829). On the other hand, media exposure of Brexit could contribute to what Gattermann and Vasilopoulou define as the “Eurosceptic Public Sphere” (2017, p. 135). The frequent exposure of transnational Eurosceptic actors and their articulation of grievances against the EU could contribute to a common condemnation of European integration among the national Public Spheres (Gattermann & Vasilopoulou, 2017, p. 136). Consequently, rather than creating a European Public Sphere meant to legitimise the democratic values of the European Union, discourse over Brexit might create a Eurosceptic Public Sphere bent on legitimising common grievances against the European Union (and thereby undermining its legitimacy).

The following section will thus analyse the media portrayal of Brexit in France, the Netherlands and Germany, and assess whether Brexit has transnational implications geared towards the Europeanisation of national Public Spheres and the reinforcement of common collective unity, or whether Brexit contributes to the manifestation of a Eurosceptic Public Sphere sympathetic to the Eurosceptic message of Brexit.

France

In France, the general attitude towards Brexit was strained, even from the onset of the Bloomberg speech in 2013. This attitude is epitomised in the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro’s condemnation of David Cameron’s strategy as “dangerous and illusory” (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 835). Accordingly, such sentiment followed into the actual Brexit vote and outcome, with Le Figaro being critical of the effects of the ‘Leave’ vote on the UK. Repeatedly, Le Figaro expressed the idea that with the UK leaving there would be severe repercussions on the British economy and the job sector (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 840). This criticism was upheld by other newspapers, including the center-left Le Monde and center-right France-Soir, arguing that Britons who voted leave have chosen to “take a leap into the unknown” (Connexion, 2016). In fact, according to research conducted by the Reuters Institute, the majority of French media tended to focus on Brexit from the perspective of the UK (79.3% of the time) while overall underlining the dangers of the leave vote (Connexion, 2016; Reuters, 2018).

Apart from focusing on the complications of Brexit for the UK, French media have also put emphasis on the transnational dimensions of the Brexit vote, with Le Monde condemning Brexit as a “release of some of the darkest forces working European views today” (Connexion, 2016). This sentiment was mirrored in Le Figaro, which pointed out that Brexit might pose transnational risks for the future of European integration. Such a risk could be found in the potentially contagious nature of British Euroscepticism, with other member states holding their own referenda on EU membership (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 836). Perhaps such sentiment stems from the prevalence of domestic Eurosceptic actors in France, including Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (RN). Arguably, Le Pen had used Brexit as a tool to rally support for her own cause of holding a French exit (‘Frexit’) referendum, galvanising ideas of French liberty in the context of the EU. This attitude closely resembled that of the Brexit debate and was condemned by mainstream media (Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2018, p. 1209). Recently, however, the Rassemblement National (RN) and Le Pen have put aside Frexit, claiming that Europe can become “something good” (FWMSTAFF, 2019) and that Frexit was no longer a priority.

Ultimately, France remains united in the wake of Brexit by sharing a common concern over the effects Brexit might have on the UK and Europe as a whole. To this extent, Brexit contributes to the unity of the French media and reinforces the common collective sentiment of condemning Brexit and Euroscepticism.   

The Netherlands

Unlike French mainstream media, which has been anti-Brexit from the very beginning, Dutch centre-left newspaper NRC Handelsblad had initially shared David Cameron’s concern that the EU might need some sort of reform (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 838). However, as the vote was cast and it became apparent that the UK would be leaving, NRC Handelsblad switched to a similar line of reasoning as the French media in denouncing Brexit for having the potential to lead the EU to its gradual disintegration, causing instability and being a risk for national and global economies (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 845).

What is interesting to note about the Dutch media is that there has been a heavy focus on domesticating the issue of Brexit. By ‘domesticating’, what is meant is taking the issue of Brexit and making it a concern for the given country, rather than for the whole of Europe. In fact, Dutch media has been rather frantic in pointing out how Brexit would damage Dutch businesses, Dutch exports and Dutch trade, enough so to warrant a working paper by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in highlighting such sentiment (Smith, Arriola, Carrico, & Tongeren, 2018, p. 3). Furthermore, similar to French mainstream media, Dutch media has also expressed concern over the populist rhetoric of Geert Wilders, a domestic Eurosceptic, who was intent on holding a Netherlands exit (‘Nexit’) referendum (Adler-Nissen, Galpin, & Rosamond, 2017, p. 8).

Nevertheless, Dutch media remains united in condemning Brexit for its potential of disrupting stability and posing a risk to national economies. Accordingly, a similar sentiment is expressed by the French mainstream media, thus highlighting a similar concern over Brexit across both national media. This shared concern contributes to a common condemnation of Brexit across nation states, thus furthering the Europeanisation of national Public Spheres.

Germany

Similar to the NRC Handelsblad, the German centre-right newspaper Die Welt welcomed David Cameron’s call for reforming the democratic deficit of the EU, as well as agreeing to the need for greater clarity and transparency among the European institutions (Bijsmans, Galpin, & Leruth, 2017, p. 843). After the vote was cast, however, coverage shifted from sympathising with Cameron’s Bloomberg speech to focusing on the risks associated with Brexit. Such risks were expressed in the unease over the rise of populism, the spread of a Eurosceptic contagion effect and, most importantly, the risk posed by Brexit on the Euro. German mainstream media has strongly emphasised that the UK leaving would send economic shocks across Europe, destabilising or altogether breaking the collective European economy (Oliver, 2016, p. 1324).

From a transnational perspective, German media has portrayed Brexit as an international crisis giving rise to right-wing Euroscepticism and renewed nationalist and isolationist sentiment (Krzyżanowski, 2019, p. 15). Unlike French media, however, German media is split on putting the blame on British Euroscepticism. Some media outlets, particularly the centre-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), have pictured Brexit as the inevitable outcome of Angela Merkel’s immigration policy (Krzyżanowski, 2019, p. 17). Other outlets, however, portray Britain as a ‘divided kingdom’ that was always determined to prioritise other relations over the European one (Adler-Nissen, Galpin, & Rosamond, 2017, p. 8). Coverage on domestic Eurosceptic actors was also present, but on a much smaller scale than both France and the Netherlands.

Ultimately, German media coverage was unified in portraying Brexit as a risk to the Euro and European stability. Such risks were also covered by both French and Dutch media, consequently contributing to a shared understanding of the unpredictability caused by Brexit among the three different countries. Accordingly, this shared understanding of the negatives of Brexit leads to a shared perception of commonness among the three nations, thus contributing to the Europeanisation of national Public Spheres and leading to the manifestation of a European Public Sphere.

Conclusion

Overall, the portrayal of Eurosceptic actors in mainstream French, Dutch and German media has mostly focused on condemning the actions of such actors rather than sympathising with their sentiment, contrary to Gattermann and Vasilopoulou’s ‘Eurosceptic Public Sphere’. Instead, discourse among the French, Dutch and German mainstream media have emphasised a similar tone of condemning Brexit. Be it for economic reasons or reasons attributed to the spread of Euroscepticism, the national media of the three states remain united in discussing Brexit as a question of common concern. This undeniably contributes to the Europeanisation of the French, Dutch and German national Public Spheres and, subsequently, paves the way for the creation of a European Public Sphere.

With this in mind, however, a certain qualification should be taken into account when addressing the impact of Brexit on the formation of the European Public Sphere. As previously mentioned, one of the functions of a Public Sphere is to unite people under a common identity and deliberate issues of common concern. However, the fact that the British voted to leave the European Union suggests that somewhere along the road of creating a European Public Sphere, the process failed in uniting the British with the rest of Europe. To this end, Brexit can be understood as the ultimate failure in the process of creating a European Public Sphere, because rather than uniting all Europeans under a common identity, the process has, in fact, divided them. 

This qualification and the unity of the French, Dutch and German media in expressing their condemnation taken into account, it is possible to look at Brexit in a different light. Rather than looking at the growth of the European Public Sphere in spite of Brexit, it is possible to look at the growth of the European Public Sphere as a consequence of Brexit, where Brexit acts to reinforce and strengthen the European identity among the remaining European nations. In this case, Brexit could be seen as a catalyst for the creation of the European Public Sphere rather than a hindrance. Ultimately, the role of Brexit in the development of the European Public Sphere is that of catalysing the process of its development among the remaining member states.


Artem Kyzym is currently a student of Social Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels. A graduate of QSI International School – Minsk, holding an Advanced Placement diploma with Honors. Currently, Artem works at Promote Ukraine (PU), a not-for-profit organization that represents the voice of the Ukrainian Civil Society in Brussels as well as facilitating closer cooperation between the European Union, its member states and Ukraine by organizing joint conferences, international events, publishing academic research, lobbying etc. Artem also has experience in working at AIESEC, the world’s largest Youth-led organization as well as having experience in participating in various Model NATO, MUN and GYMUN conferences.

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