The Daily Mail praised it as a “historic” referendum, which frees “Britain from the chains that have bound us to an unelected, unaccountable Brussels for 45 years”, in February of this year. Allister Heath, from The Telegraph, in turn, called on the British government to “believe passionately” in Brexit, saying that the “Battle for Brexit must begin […] now”.
Others, meanwhile, have called it “the biggest act of political self-sabotage in my lifetime, with stark consequences for my generation and those following it”, as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett argued in The Guardian just a few weeks ago.
A year on, the British vote to leave the European Union has split opinion, severing traditional, partisan politics both in the UK and in Germany, for many the very depiction of pro-EU politics. In August of this year, the Die Welt newspaper indicated that more Europeans than ever before were self-identifying as European: 68% at the time of writing, in comparison to just 36% in late 2016. Brexit, then, had not set off a chain reaction. Headed with a picture of two smiling youngsters waving an EU flag, the article celebrated that more people now trusted the Euro, or “haven currency”, and that the projected picture of “the sinking ship of Europe” had lost all momentum. Instead, the European Union represented a “place of stability in a turbulent world”.
The Daily Mail, however, saw it differently. An article entitled “Europe’s Brexit envy” highlighted an upsurge in anti-EU opinion as a result of the referendum, with popular and politico-corporate opinions on the institution being “increasingly out of kilter”. Far from being more trusting of the European Union, just 34 per cent of “the [European] public” felt the benefit of being part of the EU, compared to 71 per cent of the “elite”. Reporting on Brexit has been polka-dotted with scores of statistics, claims and declarations such as these: such opposing declarations make understanding public discourse on the referendum more difficult to pinpoint.
The British media has become ever more polarised by Brexit, with the traditionally left-wing broadsheets and more right leaning papers clashing on numerous occasions. Clashes over subjective reporting and stances on Brexit sharpened newspaper discontent across Britain: perhaps most potent was the publishing of and reaction to The Daily Mail article entitled “Enemies of the People”. Published in early November 2016, this was a reaction to the legal verdict that the British government would need Parliament’s consent to trigger Brexit, on top of the Queen’s acceptance of the result. For James Slack, this was a declaration of “war on democracy” by the judges: “enemies of the people”, as 17 million votes to leave the EU would be ignored and the decision would be placed with MPs. The Daily Express, too, labelled this ruling “a shattering blow for the cherished concept that the ballot box reigns supreme, that the people decide how their country should be run”. Meanwhile, the left-wing media “gleefully reported” it so that “you could almost hear their champagne corks popping”. Tensions were at their highest when 1000 complaints were made to the Independent Press Standards Organisation over the Mail’s article. Will Gore, writing for The Guardian, pinpointed the judiciary’s independence as the core of British democracy, going back, even, to the Magna Carta, which, he pointed out, was the “Treaty beloved of anyone who has ever railed against an overbearing EU”. Such anger at an independent judicial verdict by The Daily Mail showed that the “pro-Brexit media […] [had] finally lost touch with reality”, and that they’d got “about as close as you can to encouraging mob rule without actually doing so”. In short, he argued, the article was reminiscent of National Socialist policies in 1930s Germany.
Such an explicit divide in newspaper rhetoric on the European Union was absent in Germany. Whilst The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph declared their support for a Leave vote, and The Daily Mirror and The Guardian backed the Remain camp, there was less of an obvious difference in German press rhetoric. Newspapers across the political spectrum openly supported the European Union, with countless articles across the board demanding explanations for the Leave vote. After the referendum, Alexander von Schönburg wrote in Das Bild, traditionally a more right-wing newspaper, that the problem in Britain was that “the Brits want to Leave – but everything has to stay the same, exactly the way it is”. He questioned the recent developments in British politics, such as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the “Alt-Marxist”, and jokingly put it down to Winston Churchill’s famous phrase: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. The more left-leaning Die Zeit also showed bewilderment at political developments in London: Sascha Zastiral portrayed Brexit declarations as “little more than superficial declarations of intent”, with infighting and contradictions throughout the British government and cabinet.
Mainly pro-European Union, but not exclusively so. Wolfgang Streeck argued in Die Zeit that “there would be no tears if the EU went under”. Brexit, he contended, was further proof of the union’s inherent contradictions. European integration was lauded throughout Europe, although it contradicted so many policies of national interest. EU reform to migration policy, and to the single currency, would be a step away from the traditional policies of the European Union. The result of such “pragmatic policy bending”, Streeck warned, could be “constructive”, or it could be “destructive”.
Some German newspapers have shown considerable nervousness over Brexit’s financial implications. In May, a writer for Die Welt projected the question: “And what happens if the Brits leave [the EU] without paying?” It is still unclear how much Britain will be paying, with Brexit coming in the middle of the European financial block of 2013-2020. Whilst British politicians argue that they should pay no more than £60 million, up to the date Britain officially leaves Europe, politicians in the European Union have demanded that they pay up to 2020, as the budget was agreed a few years ago. According to the article, there was the possibility that Britain could leave the EU without paying anything whatsoever. High support for the European Union in Germany especially makes this question key for German citizens: little or no payment by Britain will mean a late change on the European budget, which would affect them personally.
For some journalists, historical events and mindsets were the background for the Brexit vote. For Markus Becher, a writer with Der Spiegel, the result was an offset of the British colonial mindset from the last century. “Dreaming of Empire 2.0”, he argued, was the backdrop for many decisions to vote Leave. Was it a coincidence that most of the hardline Brexiteers were not present in Brussels but in London, making all the decisions and effecting policy away from the continent? A bit too similar, he argued, to colonial policy, dictated in the Metropole. How could a ‘global Britain’ be kick-started through a Brexit vote where “the main reasons for the vote result were a fear of globalisation, strict control of immigration and the rejection of international law”? Little evidence, he argued, was present to suggest that Commonwealth countries wanted to develop trade with Brexit Britain anyway: why pay huge tariffs when you have huge, tariff-free trade deals with the rest of the European Union? “National humiliation” he argued, was imminent. Such an opinion was not restricted to Mr Becher.
The idea of a colonial mindset triggering the Brexit vote was fiercely driven back by some journalists in Britain. Writing for Reuters, John Lloyd challenged the popular European image of Brexit, as rolled “into one ball of populist horror” with American Trumpism. Such a declaration was unfounded: the supposed racism resulting from Brexit was not unique to Britain: rather “Britain is European in its racism- though milder in it than most”. Various European political commentators and politicians were rushing to unfair conclusions: the Conservative government had called for less immigration but still recognised its importance as a “source of economic, even social, advantage”. Becher’s article was, then, a weak accusation labelling Britain unfairly as “arrogant”.
Some would describe the widespread name-calling in the referendum’s aftermath as ‘arrogant’. “Don’t be a 2016 Remoaner, voting Brexit was our proudest hour”, Allison Pearson declared in December 2016, writing for The Telegraph, whilst James Tapsfield, editor of the Mail Online, warned of a “Remoaner resurrection” of pro-EU Tory and Labour MPs against Brexit. Polly Toynbee, a writer for The Guardian and Remain campaigner, meanwhile, contended that, whilst “the Brexit fanatics are at the helm […] this is not over”. The German press also inherited the term ‘Remoaner’, with Claudia Wanner, a writer for Die Welt, trying to make sense of the term: “whoever speaks about the negative consequences of the Brexit referendum, is swiftly labelled a ‘Remoaner’”. The German press reaction to Brexit was more unified than that in Britain, questioning the motives and the response to the referendum result. In Britain, it got more heated, more divisive and more brutal. Which will surely continue in the next couple of years.