A victory of the nation state: the EU Referendum in the Southern European press – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

A victory of the nation state: the EU Referendum in the Southern European press

BLAANNCCOOO

Dr Iñaki Garcia-Blanco

Lecturer at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (Cardiff University) and Director of the BA Journalism and Communication and the BA Journalism, Communication and Politics (launching in September 2016).

Email: Garcia-BlancoI@cardiff.ac.uk

 

EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 3

Section 3: News

The EU Referendum was consistently constructed as the biggest democratic decision of our lifetimes in British political and media discourses. Whilst this once-in-a-lifetime decision undoubtedly constituted a pivotal moment in British history – clearly confirmed by the political and economic crisis that has followed – the Referendum was also a critical moment for the European Union as a whole. The UK’s decision to leave would mean the departure of the second economy of the EU, the third largest state in terms of population, and a key player in European and global politics. A vote to leave would have seismic consequences over the European project and its current configuration, as well as for individual member states. Consistent with the importance of the event, newspapers in the continent intensely covered the Referendum. In this piece, I summarise the issues driving the coverage in French, Italian, and Spanish newspapers.

The EU Referendum constituted a unique opportunity for European media to transcend the limitations of national boundaries and highlight the monumental blow Brexit would have upon the European project. By constructing Brexit as eminently a British issue, and by focussing on its potential impact upon individual member states, coverage contributed to reinforce the remoteness of the EU, whilst signalling the vitality of the nation state.

I looked at the 266 stories containing the term ‘Brexit’ in newspapers of record available through Nexis (Le Figaro, Le Monde, Il Corriere della Sera, El Mundo, and El País) during the week before the Referendum. Coverage was eminently led by campaign events, focussing on the different arguments put forward by the Leave and the Remain sides. Key events, such as the nautical battle in the Thames, Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, the murder of Jo Cox, and the BBC’s ‘Great Debate’ got covered across the three countries. Coverage focussed on the evolution of pre-electoral polls too, underlining how close the race was between both sides of the campaign. Special attention was paid to rank and file citizens, particularly through voxpops, both to better understand the reasons motivating citizens to vote for one of the options, but also as a means to describe the main cleavages dividing the British public around this issue. Il Corriere, for example, compared how the privileged parents of public school students would vote with parents taking their children to a state school in a deprived area. El País, in turn, used a train ride between Aberdeen and Penzance to capture the critical issues for citizens throughout the country. Le Figaro opted for a dissection of the electorate in Peterborough and Aberystwyth, epitomising the Brexit and Remain camps, respectively.

A significant number of stories (17%) discussed the potential consequences of a Brexit vote. A handful of stories discussed how the process of Brexit would be handled should Britons vote to leave the EU. The implications Brexit would have for travelling to and from the UK, including mentions to roaming charges, were discussed in a limited number of stories focussed. Most stories about the potential consequences of Brexit focussed on the economic consequences, and were always framed through a national lens. In a textbook case of news domestication, newspapers in all three countries warned about the effects Brexit could have over their main industries, over their GDP, and over French, Italian, and Spanish citizens living in the UK. Coverage also devoted attention to the economic impact Brexit could have upon the British economy, as well as upon British citizens living in other EU countries (above all in Spain). The pre-eminence of the nation state in the coverage of the Referendum was furthered in the stories warning of a possible contagion effect onto Denmark, the Netherlands, or France. This was particularly the case in France, where Euroscepticism is reaching unprecedented levels, and support for extreme right politician Marine Le Pen is growing.

Scholars have debated the emergence and the nature of a European public sphere for more than twenty years. Amongst other definitions, the European public sphere has been defined as the simultaneous discussion of the same topics in the national media of different European countries within a similar frame of reference. The EU Referendum constituted a unique opportunity for European media to transcend the limitations of national boundaries and highlight the monumental blow Brexit would have upon the European project. By constructing Brexit as eminently a British issue, and by focussing on its potential impact upon individual member states, coverage contributed to reinforce the remoteness of the EU, whilst signalling the vitality of the nation state.