Debates about Europe in the national news media

Debates about Europe in the national news media


European Institute for the Media

Does the news media influence or reflect European integration and identification? Are national debates about Europe, as viewed through the media, enhancing or inhibiting this process? Where can we see the battles between national and European agendas, debates and identities being played out and what are the central issues? These questions were recently addressed by a research project organised by the European Institute for the Media and supported by the European Cultural Foundation.

The project was carried out in co-operation with media research institutes in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Media coverage of European news was monitored during two one-week periods in 1999, and focussed on four newspapers, and the prime time news of the main public service and commercial television channels of the eight countries.

The research highlights where events and policy issues are debated from a national or European perspective. The Kosovo crisis was examined in relation to discussions on Common Foreign Policy and ‘European security identity’ displaying differences between debates in the French, Italian and British media. Coverage of the European Parliament elections revealed the extent to which influential media in each country took a European approach by covering policy issues and other member states. The following is a brief summary of the findings.


This project investigated the way that national news media can facilitate and enhance public identification with Europe both from a political and a cultural perspective. Based in eight European countries it also compared developments in coverage of Europe and the Europeanisation of particular issues in different countries.

Examining what role the media might play in the promotion of a European identity required that questions were asked both about the concept of a European identity, and also how, and if, the traditional influences of national media on national identification could be transposed to the European level. Current literature and debates, which informed the development of this study from legal, philosophical, cultural and political fields, generally agreed on this wide perspective and also on a wide definition of ‘European’ incorporating the diverse peoples living in Europe including those of non-European origin.

National news media have traditionally played a role in ‘framing the nation’ through a combination of the mode of address to a defined group, the outlining of the news agenda relevant to the nation-state, and also providing a perspective on the outside world. Given the lack of pan-European media outlets beyond those that serve business and political elites, there is no defined group of Europeans which is addressed in any collective fashion in relation to European economic and cultural issues.

While news media can not really play a pro-active role in the promotion of European identity or integration, it is possible to examine how the media contributes to identification with Europe through their information, education and entertainment functions. The project quantified and evaluated the breadth and depth of news about Europe available to national publics. Monitoring of media coverage also reflected national debates about integration in Europe whether political or cultural.

A further indication of the level of integration in Europe, and the Europeanisation of national media agendas, is the development of a sphere of debate for European issues. We also noted how different national news agendas merge in relation to particular issues or events by observing the extent to which news stories are shared or dealt with in a similar way.

The methodology used in this research combined a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis. The media was monitored in the eight countries during two one-week periods in 1999 providing snapshots of coverage of European political and cultural affairs. Qualitative summaries of these periods with a background context, and interviews with political and media actors were provided by experts in the eight countries adding insights and enriching the results of the quantitative analysis.

Where to find European news

A wide view of European news was taken in relation to this research with relevant articles and news stories being those referring to ‘Europe/European’ the ‘EU’ and also stories about other countries and cultures in Europe. During the monitoring periods the most frequently coded topics were the Kosovo crisis, news about sport and culture, the EU, ‘Europe’ in a general sense, and the European Parliament elections. The total amount of coverage of European news varied widely between countries with Germany, particularly the German press, having a huge amount of Europe-specific or Europe relevant news items. This may be partly due to the selection of articles and differing interpretations at the individual level as regards the relevance of news items. Quantitatively the Italian media gave the least amount of attention to European issues whether EU news or wider cultural news about other people in Europe. However the approach of the Italian media has become more positive in recent years reflecting the more secure positioning of Italy within the EU.

Some differences in agenda can be noted between television and press, for example, the emphasis on agricultural issues in relation to the dioxin scandal. This provided a more interesting television news item than for example EMU and CFSP, which were important in the press agendas.

The regional press outlets monitored, by and large, reflected the coverage patterns in the national press. While there was slightly more focus on regional issues such as funding and agriculture, plenty of coverage was given to more ‘European ‘ issues. One example of a slightly differing agenda was observed in the Herald in Scotland, which paid more attention to common foreign policy debates during the Kosovo crisis than did the other UK media outlets in the project.

European news, due to the wide remit of the project, is spread across a wide section of the news outlet, particularly in the case of newspapers. Comparison reveals different tendencies for categorising EU news, in particular, with the majority of news being for example in the ‘foreign’ section (The Netherlands) or the ‘home’ section in Ireland, Italy and France. This equally reflects a ‘Europeanisation’ of national political and cultural news, and also the extent to which European news is viewed primarily in a domestic setting with the focus on national interests.

Overall the coverage of or reference to more abstract issues such as European integration, citizenship or identity is very sparse throughout all the outlets in the eight countries. ARTE (as a ‘European’ channel) has more frequent reference to these concepts and in reference to ‘Europe’, the ‘EU’ and ‘European integration’ was more inclined to have a ‘European’ rhetoric. European identity as an expression generally occurred only in the quality press mainly in France and Germany.

Coverage of the European Parliament elections

Elections at the national level represent a type of ritualised process in which the media increasingly plays a crucial role. The European Parliament elections provided an opportunity to examine the nature of media coverage of such a ritual at the supranational level and allowed some exploration of the media’s informational role in the development of European citizenship.

Previous studies have shown that coverage of elections throughout the member states has traditionally reflected the campaign strategies of political actors, characterised by a focus on domestic issues. Electoral behaviour generally amounts to a type of referendum on the incumbent government. In the context of this project such agenda-setting was most apparent in Spain, Ireland and Italy. In Ireland some of the candidates explicitly ‘stated that the elections should be treated as an opportunity for the electorate to express their opinions as to the performance of the current national government.’ The Spanish and Italian media also focussed on internal political games and strategies, while the campaigns in the UK were dominated by the splintered internal attitudes to Europe of the main political parties

In all countries the majority of news items relating to the elections did not deal with any central EU policy issues. Overall the French, Swedish and German media had a greater percentage of news items which referred directly to policy issues. The extent to which election campaign coverage included reference to other member states also varied between countries with the most comprehensive being in the French and Swedish press (see tables 1 and 2).

In discussions with journalists it has been remarked that political news in general requires some controversy or ‘personalisation’ which has certainly been the case in these recent elections as regards many of the candidates who received media attention. On the other hand there was criticism of ‘unknown’ and inferior candidates in the German media. According to one journalist ‘it is always an enormous task to cover the news in an attractive way. Otherwise readers just lose interest. It is funny to say maybe but thanks to crises, fraud, etc., the interest in Europe has somehow increased.’

While national politics and domestic issues still dominate these campaigns there were, across the board, many attempts to approach the elections from a European perspective. In the press this included publishing guides to the elections, outlining the stance of particular parties on EU issues, and covering campaign developments in other countries. These appeared, for example, in the Scottish Herald; the Irish Times; in the Spanish titles El País, El Mundo, ABC; the Dutch NRC Handelsblat; in Germany the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and to a lesser extent the Westdeutsche Zeitung; and in France Le Monde. The depth of analysis as regards the European debate in other countries will of course vary and whether this type of coverage is merely an example of ‘tokenism’ is open to debate. At least the appearance of comparative coverage across the EU indicates a developing perspective, which moves beyond national boundaries. The French and Swedish press coverage appears to be most comprehensive in terms of range of topics and inclusion of other member states in coverage. This implies an incremental development of space in European media outlets for debate and exchange.

The Kosovo crisis and national debates

The Kosovo raised questions about peace and stability, expansion of the EU towards the East and the future role of NATO in Europe. All of these issues were important background debates in the media during the crisis but the nature and depth of discussion varied between countries influenced by past traditions and alliances and also by current concerns and interests.

In Italy the conflict inspired debate about ‘the concepts of ‘Europe’, ‘European integration’ and ‘European identity’ emerged in war news dealing with Europe’s role in the crisis, with reference to the discussion of a ‘European security identity’ and foreign policies.’ In both the Irish and Swedish media the Kosovo war revolved around questions of neutrality. In general debates on CFSP were apparent in all the quality press but severely lacking in Britain, the Scottish title, the Herald, being an exception (see table three for an overview).

There was some focus on the national role being played in the conflict, which in Italy referred to the Italian government’s peace proposals, while in Britain much coverage was given to coverage of the troops. Hence the CFSP and a European dimension constituted an important element in Italian coverage while the UK debates remained national or NATO-focussed. The reporting did not attempt to link explicitly the wider political and economic debates about European integration with events in the Balkans. The same failure to connect these events was true of both The Times and The Guardian. The Balkans conflict was neither discussed nor reported in the wider context of developments in the European Union, not least the implications of that conflict for common foreign and defence frameworks.

A particular aspect of the Spanish media during this time, which was more pronounced than in other countries was coverage of the Russian angle on the crisis due to Moscow visits of the Spanish President Aznar. On French television a series of thirty to ninety-second news reports on the TV primetime newscasts showed co-operation between, and possible divergences among, European leaders regarding Kosovo and examples of co-operation between European soldiers. There was concern that Europe was playing second fiddle to the US within NATO, and that Kosovo illustrated the urgency of a common European defence and security policy.

The German media reflected internal debates including heavy critique within the Green Party of the government whose Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is a member of the Green Party. Many opponents of the war left the Green Party, causing severe problems for the coalition. The government had to steer between this critical position and the American position, as e.g. with regard to the question of sending ground forces to Kosovo. Here a certain concept of ‘Europe’ emerged during the war, one defined by a partial opposition to the United States. The more general and essay-like articles on future visions of ‘Europe’ referred to a much wider concept, which is rather an idea than a concrete political or geographical space.

Although only examining a limited time period, the coverage of Kosovo highlighted the differences that exist between countries regarding the debate on the issue of common security policy in Europe, ranging from quite developed in France to barely existent in the UK. The differences between countries regarding this aspect of integration do of course reflect historical differences and traditions. It is also apparent that, in general, ‘national security identity’ and policy has not yet given way to any ‘European’ equivalent. It is not really surprising that this would be the case. Even where there was debate on European security policy, it tended to be from a ‘national’ perspective, an example being the case of Italy, with the focus on Italian solutions to European problems. There is a sense that media coverage, whether reflecting elite opinion or political statements, allows for differing definitions of what is ‘European’ and at what point it is appropriate to include the nation-state in this grouping.

Economic issues

Integration in Europe has, to date, been a largely economic issue and much of the project has been focussed on the creation of a single economic bloc capable of competing globally, with the establishment of the single market, the single currency and cohesion plans. These developments have obviously had a major impact on the business community prompting mergers and alliances between firms. Economic regulation has promoted integration and pan-European co-operation in the form of lobbying, interest representation and policy consultation. Thus economic news is a vital aspect of the European news agenda in all countries.

During the periods monitored the fluctuations of the Euro in the international currency market has been an important aspect of European news. While the single currency is obviously central to this process, the currency also represents a political aspect of integration. National currencies have been an important symbol of national identity particularly for the British, German and French. This implies differences throughout Europe in the discourse about EMU. We can also see different expressions of identity in the discourse relating to Economic and Monetary Union.

Despite earlier reservations in Germany, since the Euro has been introduced, Europe has become an everyday subject in Germany, something to be administered by the government. An obvious example of where the debate is still alive and very much politicised is in the UK where potential membership of EMU is still a contentious issue and EMU was central to debates about the European parliament election. The Sun, viewed by politicians as an important barometer of British public opinion, switched allegiance prior to the 1997 General Election to Tony Blair's New Labour Party. Despite this the paper has remained strongly opposed to closer political and economic integration with Europe, and often critical of Blair’s ‘pro-Euro credentials’. In particular the paper has positioned itself as the crusading defender of the British Pound, vigorously opposed to EMU as was observed during this research. With headlines such as ‘The pound is safe only with us’ the paper aids the Conservative opposition in its campaign against giving up the British currency.

In contrast to this the coverage of EMU in the other countries, particularly ‘Euroland’, is not only non-contentious but also appears to have impacted on the general rhetoric about Europe. In Italy it is claimed that ‘the only issue which can be considered as truly ‘European’ is that of the Euro oscillations - and, in more general terms, the economic issues, dealing with EU single currency and OCSE reports.’

Which Europe is relevant?

Undoubtedly journalists take a wide view of Europe in their work, but news is also influenced by political agendas and editorial decision-making. For each country in the study different aspects of Europe are relevant according to the type of news or particular policy or cultural issue.

Within some national spheres Europe is by and large, dominated by the relevance of the European Union. ‘Within the Irish media it would appear that there is not so much a European rhetoric emerging as an ‘EU rhetoric’. Indeed it should be noted that there is a marked tendency right across the Irish media to use the word “European” to mean “EU”. In some articles it is virtually impossible to tell whether the author is referring to “Europe” in the sense of the geographical landmass or “Europe” in the sense of the institutions of the European Union.’

In the context of media information specifically about the EU this is to be expected.

Coverage of other countries in the context of the European elections reveals that the UK, followed by France and Germany are the countries most frequently discussed.

Coverage of EMU in relation to other people in Europe (aside from the more technical economic coverage) varies from an internal political debate in the UK to wider discussions on the implications for Eastern and Central Europe and the expansion of the EU, as observed in Germany and Ireland.

Despite the more ‘isolationist’ or ‘national’ perspective of the UK regarding European political issues, the UK is for most other countries in this project of central importance to European debates. Although the Irish media pays most attention to the UK, in the context of EMU, the UK remains the ‘other’ in European news with more focus on the ‘Euroland’ countries. When looking at all coverage and references to member states the pattern changes slightly. While the UK is most frequently referred to in German and particularly Irish media, Germany is more frequently referred to overall in France, The Netherlands and Sweden.

Obviously the Kosovo crisis introduced another range of countries which are next in line during the monitoring periods as regards prominence. A further group includes Central and Eastern European countries, the coverage being most significant in Germany and Ireland.

In relation to countries outside the EU, particularly the applicant countries, the German media give the most wide-ranging coverage but there is also a great deal of reference in the Irish media. This is partly due to the discussions on expansion of the EU and the implications for Ireland. The German media is of course most aware of the countries to its east such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.

Summary of Conclusions

  • he German press features the most wide-ranging coverage of European news and provides most information about people outside of the EU, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • German television news on the two main channels (public service and commercial) was far less comprehensive particularly during the European elections.
  • The Italian media could be considered the least Europeanised in terms of quantity although debates about Common Foreign and Security Policy in Europe were important in the Italian press.
  • Coverage of central policy issues and other member states, during the European Parliament election period, was most comprehensive in the Swedish and French media monitored for the project not far ahead of the Spanish and German media.
  • The extent to which domestic politics influenced the election campaigns was most evident in Ireland, Italy and to some extent in Spain.
  • During the Kosovo crisis the focus on the humanitarian aspect of the refugees was of greatest relevance in the UK, Spain and The Netherlands.
  • Debates about Common Foreign Policy received most attention in Italy, Ireland and Sweden but were also an important element of coverage in Germany, France and Spain.
  • The media monitored in the United Kingdom made little or no attempt to connect the Kosovo crisis with any wider discussions on defence co-operation in Europe. The only exception to this was the Scottish title, The Herald, perhaps suggesting the development of a different perspective on European issues in the newly devolved Scotland.
  • EMU remains a highly politicised issue in the UK while being an accepted aspect of economic news in the other countries, particularly and most obviously in the ‘Euroland’ states. Discussions of EMU occurred in almost 50% of the European Parliament election coverage in the UK.
  •  While the UK retains an ‘isolated’ approach to European issues as reflected by the media, including the low attention paid to policy issues and other Europeans, the UK is for all other countries the most frequently discussed member of the EU. 
  • The impact of European news on the national news agenda
  •  European political issues are complex and it is often difficult for correspondents to convince editors at home that stories are important
  •  With the general ‘commercialisation’ of news media stories need ‘a national angle’, a ‘personality story’ or an element of scandal or panic e.g. BSE , Dioxin, fraud, Commission resignation, war
  • European political and cultural news is seldom priority on television news unless it falls into the criteria above.
  • In the press, European news spreads across different sections. In the Dutch media the EU was always coded as being in a ‘World/foreign’ section of the news; in the French, Italian and Irish press it was considered under ‘home news’
  • Sharing and syndication of news is less common than would be expected, but the same news agencies are frequently used by European media outlets
  • Media coverage of other ‘peoples’ and cultures in Europe
  • The Kosovo crisis implied that in this context there was mainly coverage of the Kosovo refugees. This follows a pattern in other studies of only focussing on the ‘other’ in times of war and crisis. 
  • Many media practitioners, and many politicians did not believe that the news media should be obliged to provide ‘educational’ coverage of other cultures outside of particular events
  • Some felt the news should provide extra ‘background information’ in times of conflict
  • Sporting events are the most widely covered ‘European phenomenon’. Travel, culture, literature and music are also important but may constitute a ‘comodification’ of other cultures rather than any educational function.
  • Spain, Italy, France and Greece feature most prominently in articles regarding cultural issues and travel. However, in the Spanish, French and Italian media little attention is paid to these issues in relation to other European countries.
  • Coverage of other people in Europe is naturally also a function of geographical proximity common languages and historical links. For Ireland the most important European neighbour is Britain. For all countries, the UK, Germany and France are most central to EU issues. The German media pays close attention to its Eastern neighbours while the Swedish media covers the other Scandinavian countries. 

Further information on the project: Building Bridges between cultures

Partner institutes involved in the research

  • Professor Michael Palmer, CRIFEME, Université Paris III France
  • Dr. Uwe Hasebrink and Dr. Claudia Lampert Hans-Bredow Institute, Hamburg Germany:
  • Professor Paschal Preston, COMTEC, Dublin City University, Dublin Ireland:
  • Prof. Gianpietro Mazzoleni and Dr. Federico Boni, di Scienze Antropolgiche, Università di Genova, Italy
  • Professor Esteban Lopez-Escobar and Dr Rosa Berganza, Dept. of Public Communication, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain
  • Dr. Lars Nord, The Institute for Democratic Communication, Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden
  • Dr. Leen d'Haenens, Communicatiewetenschap KUN, University of Nijmegan, The Netherlands:
  • Professor Philip Schlesinger, Dr. Raymond Boyle, Dr. Gillian Doyle, Stirling Media Research Institute, Stirling University, Scotland, United Kingdom

Follow up research: ‘Europe in the Media’

A follow-up project ‘Europe in the Media’, funded by the German broadcaster WDR is currently being carried out in six countries including Poland. This research focuses on informational television programming and looks at themes and actors involved in debates about Europe. Such programming is of particular interest with the launch of information campaigns at the EU level regarding expansion in Eastern Europe.

For more information on either of these projects please contact Deirdre Kevin at the EIM: kevin [at] Copies of the complete report are available from the European Institute for the Media. 

On 30 May 2015 in Brussels, István Hegedűs made a presentation to students of the Eszterházy Károly College, Eger, about the evaluation of the politics of the Hungarian government in the European political space.