Media coverage of the European Union is key to understand the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism in Europe and its impact on democracy in old and new member states.
The UK referendum made the headlines of newspapers throughout the world. Croatia, the EU’s newest member state, was not an exception. “Should I stay or should I go?” asked the daily Slobodna Dalmacija on June 23, while the tabloid 24sata quoted a YouGov poll that predicted a victory of the “remain” camp with 52% against 48%.
The increased coverage of the final week before the UK referendum contrasted with the typically rather modest coverage of British politics by the Croatian media. In fact, even after the meeting between David Cameron and former Prime-Minister Zoran Milanovic in October 2015, Brexit was still only sporadically mentioned. The focus of national local media remained largely on domestic matters, economic relations and the support to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership bid.
A press release from the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs published in February 2016 summarised Croatia’s position regarding Brexit: concessions made to Westminster would require “concrete solutions” from the EU, as put by Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic. The institutional crisis triggered by Brexit could slow down the accession of Balkan countries, which would go against Croatia’s economic interests. Zagreb could also face a severe political crisis if the Commission pushes for a fast enlargement of the Eurozone and for the adoption of austerity measures (Picture 1).
Croatia’s road to membership to the EU has its roots in 2000, when a reformist coalition rose to power following the death of President Franjo Tudjman, from the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). A year later the Parliament launched a communication strategy aimed at informing the public about the integration process and how it could strengthen Croatia’s sovereignty.
Public attitudes towards accession have varied depending on the status of the negotiations and coverage of EU affairs by the Croatian press (Graph 1). The overwhelming support for membership in the early 2000s gave way to rising Euroscepticism once negotiations began, and reached its lowest point in 2005, when talks were delayed because of failure to cooperate with the UN war Crimes Tribunal (ICTY). At that time, only 42% of the population believed that membership would be beneficial to Croatia. In order to respond to this trend, the government launched a second communication strategy to convey “realistic optimism” concerning Croatia’s future. The strategy highlighted the economic, social and political benefits of the EU in various policy areas – agriculture, rural development, public administration and judiciary system – and targeted specific groups such as civil society organisations, local governments, farmers and recipients of social benefits.
The accession process, which involved not only economic and trade matters, but also cooperation with other former Yugoslavian republics and the ICTY, was concluded in 2011 after seven years of negotiations. EU membership was approved by referendum on 22 January 2012 (66.27% against 33.13%), despite the low turnout (43.51%), and on 1st July 2013 Croatia became the 28th EU member state.
British and Croatian Euroscepticism
Limited knowledge about the EU, distrust in politicians, and worsening of economic and social indicators are key issues that contribute to the spread of Euroscepticism across Europe. However, this phenomenon affects member states in different ways. Media coverage is an important factor in understanding how public opinion about the EU is formed. EU communication strategy still tends to be perceived as excessively technical and inaccessible to citizens, thus contributing to the perception that the EU does not work in favour of its citizens.
The 2004 enlargement presented an opportunity for the EU to come closer to citizens. In the new member states, considerable effort has been placed on informing audiences about the opportunities brought up by EU membership. Poor knowledge of the EU remains a problem, but awareness of EU institutions has significantly increased since negotiations started (Table 1).
The same trend is not observed in the UK. In 2004, 75% of British citizens knew about the European Commission, while the EU average was 80%. Ten years later, the British public are the least aware of the Commission (75% against 84% EU average), despite the fact that 8 out of 10 adults use the internet on a daily basis.
To large part of the British public, the EU is associated with the financial crisis, which explains the growing awareness of the European Central Bank (ECB), and also a rather negative attitude towards the EU. Contrary to Croatia, EU enlargement has been reported in the UK as a source of instability, and a threat to national identity. As a result, progress in the negotiations with candidate countries have reinforced the image of the EU in the former, but led to higher levels of mistrust in the latter (Graph2).
National media in Croatia also reacts differently to the outcome of negotiations with the EU. Whenever Zagreb and Brussels reached a deadlock, EU affairs became less prominent in the media, as in the impasse regarding cooperation with the ICTY in 2005-2006. When disputes were resolved – such as the 2009 arbitration concerning the border with Slovenia and the agreement on Ecological and Fisheries Protection Zones (ZERP) with Italy and Slovenia – EU integration became more salient in the media. In the UK, by contrast, media coverage increases whenever there is a conflict between the interests of the UK and those of other member states or those of the EU. These relations are generally framed in the media as a zero-sum game; the EU is presented as an obstacle to national interests, and the main one to blame for deterioration of the “British Way of Life”. The side-lining of experts’ advice and the extensive discourse around the idea of taking back control over policy-making led to the victory of the “leave” camp in the UK referendum. “Remainers” seem to have learned very little from the French “non” in 2005 and from the Dutch opposition to the association agreement with Ukraine last April. Pro-EU forces from various British parties have been unable to coordinate themselves and use mass media portray the overall benefits from EU membership that go beyond financial advantages.
It is unlikely that relations between Croatia and the UK will suffer major changes following the Brexit vote, as the economic and cultural ties between the countries have not developed significantly over the last ten years. Brexit, however, represents a challenge for the EU to act as cohesive actor. Populism and anti-immigrant sentiment are rising throughout Europe, which could be a destabilizing force in the coming years. Communication strategies remain of vital importance in informing citizens – most notably young cohorts, who show lower levels of political participation worldwide – about the potential benefits of the EU (as well as of its problems), and about how they can have an active role in the European project.