Reporting on the EU: Pan-European and national approaches

Reporting on the EU: Pan-European and national approaches


Presentation by Zoltán Gyévai at the conference "The Future of the Enlarged European Union" on 29 November 2002.

The European Union and the European institutions are often criticised for their democratic deficit and lack of transparency. Whilst some of these criticisms are justified, these shortfalls are to a large extent due to the nature of the EU, namely the combination of intergovernmental and community elements in its structure and functioning. Thanks to efforts made by the institutions themselves there are some signs of improvement (opening up for the public of some legal procedures in the Council, publication of annotated agenda well prior to the European Council, etc.). In this respect further impetus can be expected from the ongoing European Convention whose one of the main priorities is to bring the EU closer to its increasingly aleniated citizens, i.e. by enhancing the role of national parliaments in the decision-making process within the European Union.

However there are some other forces that are pushing the EU as a whole to be more accountable. The most important force is the European Parliament that thanks to its new and ever increasing powers more and more asserts its authority vis-a-vis the other EU-institutions, first of all the Council and the European Commission.

Normally it is the media that, besides the parliaments, play a key role in scrutinising the functioning of governments and the institutions. What is the situation in the European Union? Does the press play its traditional role and how does it play it? Is there any need for a genuine pan-European press to check and scrutinise the EU-institutions and decision-making? Or the national media offers the most appropriate framework to cover the integration process?

To find an answer to these questions one has to take a look at the complexity as well as the complex structure of the European Union. My point is that the way the press covers the EU-affairs reflects the complex nature of the European Union itself. Since the EU is a complex interacion between institutions, institutions and member states and finally member states and member states, the press coverage should inevitably reflect this set of relationship. Given this unusual intertwining between the EU and the national level one can come to the conclusion that EU-affairs are in fact part of the national (internal) policy that with a few exception extends to the everyday life of citizens. Thus reporting on the EU does not mean necessary reporting from Brussels. The structural and cohesion funds and the common agriculture policy for instance are implemented as a rule by the relevant national and regional authorities, i.e. on the ground.

In this respect "Brussels journalism" is more related to the decision-making process, while following the practical impacts of the EU-policies falls to the national and regional media. This two-fold approach is apparently still not realised in the written press of some applicant countries where the EU (with a few exception) is still considered to be an independent foreign policy item, rather than an horizontal, integral issue. Editors and journalists still tend to perceive the European Union and the process of integration as an abstract phenomenon, which has only limited practical relevance to the whole spectre of the Hungarian economy or society. Instead of taking the lead to point to the real questions of the Hungarian EU-accession, particularly the national daily newspapers have taken for a long time a very passive, indifferent attitude vis-a-vis the accession. But this situation is now rapidly changing. After a long periode of inaction these newspapers are now eager to take part in different initiatives funded by the government with the view to the run-up to the national referendum on the accession set to take place next spring. Nevertheless a questionmark remains: why have national daily newspapers been waiting until the last minute to seriously address such an important event?

Coming back to Brussels, there are a handful of publications that are focusing exclusively on the European Union (for example: European Voice, Agence Europe, Euobserver, Euractiv and La Quinzieme etc.). Nevertheless these publications are dedicated mainly to insiders who are more or less involved in EU affairs. Apart from that the national press dominates the European arena at the same time focusing on two different objectives: scrutinizing the national governments that are the main stakeholders in the European Union and the EU itself.

For the majority of the newspapers whose headquarters are in their home country the most important job is to observe the actions of their government in the decision-making process of the European Union. Thus the national approach seems to be prevailing in EU reporting which has to do with the fact that some national competences are transferred to the intergovernmental level. To pick up an example the German press is looking at the adoption of the new takeover directive that is designed to facilitate the cross-border mergers between companies throughout the Union. The national approach is still relevant if it comes to legal proposals and decisions adopted by the European Commission. This is mostly the case with decisions on the competition policy involving big national companies or with infringement procedures initiated against one or another member states for failing to align with the EU-acquis.

While scrutinising the actions of their governments the representatives of the press also fulfill an other mission, namely checking the proper functioning and the evolution of the European Union. By putting themselves into the role of the watchdog the newspapers of various countries exercise a democratic control over the supranational EU institutions. In this respect we can see some signs of an emerging "pan-European or EU press" which on one hand does influence the way institutions function and on the other closely interacts with these institutions. An important turning point was the fall of the Santer Commission in 1999 prompted by accusations in the press of nepotism and corruption against some members of the European Commission. The Commission has been forced to step down under pressure from the European Parliament supported by the Brussels press corps. To some extent it demonstrated how important it could be to win the sympathy of the press that turned its back on the Commission while discovering a new European Parliament.

The attitude of the Brussels press corps vis-a-vis the EU and the main European institutions is somewhat ambiguous. On one hand the press is highly critical of the EU and any blunder made by and in Brussels can provoke a huge outcry and might have far-reaching consequences. On the other hand most journalists tend to develope a certain empathy (and sympathy) towards the supranational institutions in contrast to the "highly secretive" Council and the governments who, to many journalists, seem to pursue their own hidden agenda very often at the expense of the Community interests. As a general rule the media is very critical of the EU but even more critical of the member states.

The attitude of the press towards the EU is influenced by a very strong national element too, namely the general position and national interests of the member states in the Union. The media of the traditionally more sceptical member states - like Britain or some Scandinavian countries - is more suspicious with regard to steps designed to deepening the integration and the role of the supranational institutions. But this more critical approach is related too to the different culture, the higher degree of transparency in some of these countries compared with that of the EU. As regards to other national approaches, the German press apparently shows a particular interest towards the sound financial management of the European Union (the budgetary Commissioner is actually German) which can be explained by the fact that the German taxpayers are far the biggest contributors to the EU budget. One of the main focuses of the Belgian press in the process of enlargement is the possible impact of this later on the prospects of further integration and on the balance between big and small member states.

The process of enlargement that is now in the forefront of the interest of the EU-press is generally put into the context of its impact on individual member states (and mainly on their financial position) rather than on the European Union as a whole and on its future. This is not surprising given that EU governments sometimes seem to limit the accession of new states to a question of money.

In this respect reports published in the German, French and British press on the aftermath of the groundbreaking Brussels Summit tell a lot. The German media was focusing on the German-French deal that actually paved the way for the adoption of the financial package by the 15. Some, like "Die Welt" put emphasis on the German side of the deal claiming that Jacques Chirac outsmarted Gerhard Schröder. The French media concentrated on the impacts of the deal on the Common Agriculture Policy and on the revival of the French-German engine. "Le Figaro" highlighted that M. Chirac managed to water down an early CAP reform so much desired by the European Commission and some net contributor member states. "Le Monde" besides puts the emphasis on the spectacular showdown between the French president and the British Prime Minister over the British rebate. The British press not unexpectedly was focusing on the debate over the rebate. The aformentioned articles have paid very little, if any, attention to the question how the financial offer of the EU would accomodate the (legitim) requests and needs of the applicant countries and how the historical enlargement could go ahead.

The main conclusions are the following:

  • Language, culture and traditions provide the press with a very strong national background.
  • With the exception of a handful publications of supranational character the national approach prevails in EU coverage. This is closely linked to the complex nature of the European Union and to the fact that the EU is definitely part of the internal affairs of each country.
  • There are some signs of an emerging EU awareness in the press. The "EU press" is in fact a part of the national media that is based in Brussels and thus having much more understanding of what the integration process stands for.  
  • Nevertheless even in an ever closer Union there is little likelihood of a genuine EU press operating on a supranational basis and applying a supranational approach.

Zoltán Gyévai