Euro-scepticism is said to be widely spread among British public. A quick look at the press seems to confirm it : virulent (and sometimes vulgar) frontpages against the EU help sell big newspapers by millions. But to what extent does it reflect the British public opinion ? Does it mean that trust in the EU is lower than trust in national political institutions ?
British euro-scepticism is infamous and well-documented. The eurobarometer survey from Spring 2010 shows that the UK’s membership to the EU is viewed by only 29% of respondents as “a good thing”, while the EU-27 average is approximately 50%. Moreover, 50% of British citizens believe that the UK has not benefited from EU membership. Eurobarometer data from November 2010 shows that the British public distrusts the EU and knows little about its functioning. Indeed, 64% of respondents answered that they did not trust the EU, and 56% admitted that they do not know how the EU works. There is also a high level of “don’t know” answers to a variety of questions compared with the EU-27 average, which highlights the understanding deficit expressed by these 56% of respondents.
Sources of euroscepticism are varied; academics have studied the EU’s democratic deficit, the perceived loss of sovereignty, its perceived economic costs and dysfunctional nature, as well as politician’s discourses and the media’s portrayal of the EU. Indeed, scholars have linked public cynicism about politics and politicians to the manner in which the media frame the news. In fact, the media as an explanatory factor for public support for the EU has increasingly gained importance as eurobarometer polls from summer 2005 also carry questions about perceptions of media coverage and representation of the EU.
In the case of the UK, the print media has been particularly virulent with its stories concerning the EU. The Daily Mail from February 11th, 2011 headlined the “Day We Stood Up to Europe”, described the MPs’ vote rejecting the European Court’s ruling that prisoners must get the right to vote as “a historic defence of Britain’s sovereign right to make its own laws”. On the same topic, the Daily Express’s headline read “Britain in the EU: This Must be the End” and The Sun’s read “Two Fingers at Court: It’s Up EUrs. MPs Snub Human Rights Bid to give Lags the Vote”. Never mind that the ruling came from the ECHR (Council of Europe) and not the Court of Justice of the European Union … With 4.8m, 1.5m and 7.8m readers respectively, these three newspapers certainly reach a wide audience.
In contrast, The Guardian or The Times did not draw attention to this matter on their front page, preferring to cover the events in Egypt. Their coverage of the EU is perhaps visibly less negative or dramatic, but it still reflects the defiance and eurosceptic tendencies displayed in the aforementioned newspapers. On February 18th, an article in The Times titled “Cameron is cleared to defy Europe on Human Rights” covers the issue and on February 10th, The Guardian issued an article entitled “MPs decide to keep blanket ban on prisoners' vote”. However, these two newspapers do display a more objective vision regarding the EU, as well as more intimate knowledge of the EU as articles map out where the decision comes from (the ECHR) and whom it might affect. Nonetheless, this more balanced coverage does not reach such a wide readership with 1.6m readers for The Times and 1.1m for The Guardian. The Financial Times also displays a more objective coverage concerning the EU, with an article entitled “Cameron challenges court on votes for prisoners” on February 9th and one on February 16th titled “Human rights court warns on prisoner votes”. The Financial Times however, for all its objectivity and issue-driven news coverage, only reaches approximately 0.3m readers.
When studying the correlation of media portrayals and public opinion, we must be careful however not to over-simplify or over-generalise. First of all, the directionality of the causal relationship is not obvious or proven. Do the newspapers reflect public opinion, or do they shape public opinion? The two seem rather to reinforce each other: public opinion is reflected in the media, whose coverage of the EU also reinforces public opinion. Secondly, other factors that affect both levels of support for the EU and newspaper readership include age, social grade and/or education level. Indeed, the eurobarometer analysis concludes that “there continues to be a strong correlation between education levels and understanding how the EU works”. Indeed, while 9% of those less educated hold a positive view of the EU, the figure quadruples to 35% of those more educated.
In fact, the first set of newspapers discussed - the Daily Mail, the Daily Express or The Sun - are widely understood to cater to a low-income section of the population. Indeed, the National Readership Survey for 2010 indicates that these tabloids are widely read by “adults in social grades C2DE” - that is, “skilled working class” (C2), “working class” (D) and “those at the lowest level of subsistence” (E). The figures for The Sun are certainly impressive - it is the most widely read newspaper in the UK with 7.8m readers, and it reaches approximately 2.8m readers in the ABC1 demographic (“upper middle class” (A), “middle class” (B) and “lower middle class” (C1)), and nearly 5.0m readers in the C2DE categories. Furthermore, these set of newspapers rely heavily on sensational and confrontational stories. They are also heavily politicised, especially during electoral campaigns when they come out in support for a specific candidate.
In comparison, the second set of newspapers - The Guardian, The Times and The Financial Times - caters to a more elitists audience. For instance, The Times reaches 1.4m readers in the ABC1 category, with only 0.2m readers in the C2DE demographic. The Guardian for its part, has a readership of 0.1m in the second group, and the figures for The Financial Times are even more impressively low, with 0.03m readers in the C2DE demographic. Rather than focusing on strategic and sensationalist news, these dailies cover issue-related news, delving into the details of the cases. Moreover, unlike their tabloid counterparts, these newspapers are not as politicised and, although they have their political stance, they will not take position during an electoral campaign.
The eurobarometer data, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, although 29% of respondents believed that EU membership was “a good thing”, only 33% believed it was “a bad thing”, and 31% answered that it was “neither good nor bad”. Moreover, while 64% answered that they do trust the EU, 68% answered that they did not trust the british government, and 66% do not trust the British parliament. Trust in the EU is marginally higher than trust in national political institutions - perhaps a sign of generalised political scepticism rather than one specifically oriented towards the EU.
In an interview with EurActiv in 2006, the head of the Commission’s EU representation to the UK, Reijo Kemppinen, argues that “the people and the press in the UK have been led to believe that they are somehow uniquely eurosceptic. I am not sure whether the British tabloid press treat the EU any different to the way in which it treats Tony Blair and his ministers. British media are highly commercialised and politicised, that's how it is. It is useless to try to question that”. Kemppinen continues to argue that “it would be wrong to say that the UK as such is more eurosceptic than others. It is no longer backed by any statistical evidence. We have countries in the EU that are at least as or more eurosceptic”.
Indeed, in an interview with Nouvelle-Europe UK published last week, LSE’s Maurice Fraser stated that “the British public is no different from public opinion across Europe – in other words it is largely indifferent”. Although euroscepticism is widespread in Britain, it does not run very deep. “Even if the British public is not very enthusiastic about the European Union”, he argues, “the proportion of the British public for whom this is a key measure, a key political test, is very small, 5% at most of the population”. As such, the outcries against the EU emanate from a small minority of the population.
The media in the UK is highly confrontational and sensational. That is what sells. From the media’s general negativity concerning the EU, however, we cannot draw generalisations of the depth of euroscepticism in the UK. The eurobarometer survey from Autumn 2010 identifies certain areas in which the British public actually supports greater cooperation amongst EU member-states. Indeed, 79% of respondents agreed that EU member-states should work together in tackling the financial and economic crisis. Moreover, a clear majority supports “joint EU decision-making in key areas”, for instance, 62% support cooperation in the fight against terrorism, 61% agree that there should be more collaboration in scientific and technological research, while 55% view environmental protection as an EU joint effort.
To go further
On Nouvelle europe website
On the Internet
- Eurobarometer polls , European Commission website
- UK newspapers archives : Pressdisplay , Frontpage
Businessballs.com, Demographic classifications
"British Euroscepticism is a myth", Euractiv, 31 January 2006