London symbolises the UK to many people across the rest of the EU. What then do they think Brexit means for London and how has London – the UK’s media centre – shaped their views? In this, the fifth in our London Calling Brexit series, Alexandra Borchardt, of the Reuters Institute at Oxford, looks at how to many in the rest of Europe the UK’s London-based elite seem equally ignorant of the EU as they are of the rest of the UK outside central London.
Looking at the Brexit mess from outside of the UK, it doesn’t take much for observers to conclude at least one thing: the British don’t understand the EU. Leavers display a downright hostility through their portrayal of the EU as some bureaucratic, money gobbling behemoth, determined to cripple Britain’s autonomy, but this completely misses the point. It should be common knowledge, at least in elite circles, that the bloc was conceived after two atrocious wars primarily to prevent people from shooting at each other again. Then again, it is safe to say that the lack of insights is mutual: most European citizens have been baffled by the UK and Brexit. But what is even worse is that many inhabitants of the ‘London bubble’ around Westminster and Whitehall don’t seem to understand the rest of the UK either.
Having moved to the Southeast of England from Germany a little more than a year ago, following the Brexit debates has been fascinating. They reveal a country, and especially an elite, that on the one hand is proud of its heritage as a former world superpower, but on the other is often ignorant of so much that happens outside central London, and even less on the other side of the English Channel. In a media environment firmly rooted in the UK’s capital, it is as easy, if not sometimes easier, to stay informed about what happens in India, China or Australia, than about what the challenges are in Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow, or Cardiff.
By contrast, Germany benefits from a very different system with its federalism and strong regions, many of them with a strong industrial core and sizeable media organisations. The German capital, Berlin, does not dominate German politics like London does. But Germany is also different because it was forced to confront its devastating past. For West Germany to survive morally and economically, it was essential to forge alliances with former enemies to move towards a peaceful European future; a future our children will hopefully enjoy for decades to come.
Yes, the EU was created on shared economic interest, but its vision has always been political. The founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 promoted the idea that economic cooperation would foster political comprehension, six years later the Treaty of Rome affirmed that belief. Trade and economic relations have always been underpinned by strong images of political cooperation. The iconic photo of then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand holding hands at a war cemetery in Verdun in 1984 comes to mind. It was just recently mirrored by the embrace of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. In the 1990s, the Eurozone was not primarily invented to spur growth but to take one more step towards political unity after the fall of the iron curtain.
Sadly, too many in the UK’s elite in London don’t look at the EU that way. At least that is what it feels like. Some of London’s elites until recently cultivated the image of a predatory Nazi-Germany. It’s clearer than ever that Britain engaged in European integration mostly to reap some economic benefits, not for political reasons. This means that the narrative of peace and cooperation was completely lost on many in the UK. And when the economic benefits fell through, for them there was not even a shadow left of the real story of the European Union.
Maybe it would have been easier if the story of the UK itself was one of a proud union. But the Brexit debate has revealed that the UK’s own differences were given insufficient thought. The absence of reflection about the Irish question is a sad testimony of this. Had anybody responsible thought about the fragile situation at the Northern Ireland border, the Brexit referendum might not have been conceived so easily. And obviously, there was not much reflection about economic consequences either such as inflation, or of transport connections, fishing rights and many more. The “us British” versus “them Europeans” narrative of British autonomy was sold to economically challenged citizens across the UK without alerting them to the fact that the EU has worked to their advantage. Citizens outside London, desperate for the attention of their policymakers, fell victim to a power play by some privileged Londoners.
Image (cropped) by katy-at-katyblackwood.co.uk, (CC BY-SA 4.0).
So what’s the view from outside the UK’s – and London – bubble? Frankly, many Europeans couldn’t care less about Brexit. That’s what the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the media research specialist Prime Research concluded in their study “Interested but not engaged: How Europe’s Media Cover Brexit”. They found that major European media outlets in eight countries dutifully covered the Brexit process, but regarded it as Britain’s own problem rather than a European challenge. French media were the most outspoken on this, confidently suggesting that the EU might be better off without a nagging neighbour constantly putting its foot on the brake. The Europeans concerned the most have been the Irish, who know that the mess will be theirs to shoulder, once London’s Brexiteers have retreated into their bubble.
Of course, international Brexit reporting has been shaped by the London perspective on things as well. All foreign media have their correspondents stationed in London, with only the more privileged of them entitled to the luxury of extensive travel through other parts of the UK. Consequently, the foreign press spends most of their time with the “he said, she said” type of reporting centring around the negotiations in Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels, as the Reuters Institute study revealed. Very little reporting has revolved around issues like citizen’s rights, around the consequences Brexit might have for ordinary people, with some concern shown only about trade and business relations. European media portray Brexit mostly as a battle between Westminster and Brussels, rather than as a grave policy step affecting real people outside central London and across the UK.
Of course, correspondents usually mirror the local press, and if that press is based in London, then the London view will be what is transported beyond the border. The decline of regional news organisations hasn’t helped. The BBC World Service broadcasts in more than 40 languages, yet between London and the rest of the UK, much seems to be lost in translation.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Alexandra Borchardt is Director of Leadership Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
At last i am reading a more understanding point of view from the LSE.
I get the feeling that towns outside Berlin do not feel left out of the fun of modern life. By contrast ,it It seems to me,that those who live even slightly outside London have had no care take to ensure their prosperity.
Take Thanet, now very much in the news because of the proposed lorry park at Manston airport.
What madness because there are 50 miles of narrow winding.roads to Dover.from the airport.
I would like to explain that there has, for the past 4 years an ongoing fight to retain the airport for aviation and prevent Mrs Gloag of Stagecoach building a vast city for London overspil in a place where ther is little water and very little work .
Traditionally Thanet has been used by London councils as a cheap place to house people.
Many of us feel that the airport is a lifeline to our own prosperous economy.. Many feel it will succeed , if it is used for cargo ,.with a small, but with potential to grow , passenger service.
In fact , 4 years ago,there was a twice daily flight to Schiphol which was becoming more and more popular. KLM were furious when the airport was suddenly shut.which is why many of us feel it had been land banked and run down.
Myhusband flew to the States via Schiphol which was wonderful compared to the dismal experience of London airports and potential missed flights because of M25 road jams
Manston has a very long runway and fast roads apart from the winding roads to Dover. We also have a port at Ramsgate.which needs dredging work before it can take ferries again.
I think the Manston issue is another case of the blinkered government not looking outside London. There is an ongoing DCO for the airport which is being supported by our two Conservative MPs.
Sir Roger Gale has been tireless in his support for the airport and angry with his own government for itis London centered view.I think Chris Grayling is rather a useless Transoport minister and very much in bed with Mrs Gloag of Stagecoach.
On a separate note, Thanet is the place were Nigal farage hoped to will a seat in parliament. He supported the airport until the election was over and UKIP councillors had won their seats. Such was their fury over being misled that most of the councillora have now become Independant.
I even wonder if there would have been votes for Brexit had London taken care to people outside their bubble.
I would like to say again that the British people are not extreem in their political views. We have no BNP member of parliament. We never had a facist MP. We tend to distrust unfairness and make fun of such. Mosely never did as well as he may have done in Europe with his ‘Black Shirt’ movement,or was it the name ,’Brown Shorts’.
>>I would like to say again that the British people are not extreem in their political views. We have no BNP member of parliament. We never had a facist MP.
Actually the UK is pretty far right with this governement, sometimes a lot more than the French FN.
Let’s not forget the Tories were only governing conservative party in western Europe to support Hungarian far-right in EU vote.
You might want to read about the Windrush scandal too…
We tend to try and get on even with the most awful dictators.We have to get on in China, Saudia Arabia.and countries which were behind the iron curtain not so long ago. I think it a case of dammed if you do and dammed f you don’t. Hungary has a dreadful recent history.. This does not mean to say that we are a far right country. In a far right country you would be terrified to say anything political at all.I can give my opinion without being rounded up and shot. All we can do is try and talk without being rude.The artist Grayson made two pots One a Leave Pot and One a Remain pot and invited all the contributers to meet each other. They got on fine as they agreed with each other much of the time on social issues. the difference was about solving the problems. .
It’s a class war, is it not? Farage was in favour of the Manston airport before, but not after the election. How very odd. Almost inexplicable. If this is true, he is even more of a politician than I had thought. He’ll go far yet, if he so wishes. As to the clutter and busy roads, populated areas, etc.. maybe you are in the wrong country. You cannot expect to live in England and have quick and easy access to airports if you choose to live in a area where an airport is uneconomical or unwanted by some influential people. Unfortunately, in the West, the government at all levels is mostly buyable or corrupt, or both. If there’s money to be made…
The article above is also somewhat confused in its presentation. Does citizenship matter for every citizens, or is it only the political operators and financially secure/economically successful who have rights? Is it fine for large swathes of the electorate to be effectively disenfranchised? If so, by what right? Part of the problem with diverging opinions is the fact that practically every forum where people could have a discussion to sort out political issues is wholly partisan. Not like Parliament, where, despite the party system and the whips, each member is at some stage allowed to speak their mind, and outside of the House of Commons they are at liberty to speak to constituents and the press ad lib and uncensored. If, however, the HoC is dominated by by-partisan collusion to direct affairs in the face of the majority of the electorate, electorates and the constituents severally and collectively, there is no forum left where within neutral territorium every viewpoint may receive equal exposure and be debated on merit. It looks as if no amount of political spin will solve the burning issue of a large percentage of legal and rightful citizens being railroaded into a straitjacket where democracy is a sham and where citizenship is certain to be hollowed out further. The elites have put in place a system by which a taxpayer-funded gravy train buys support for the enforced federalisation of the EU. This project is advanced by means of subterfuge, stealth, lies, false promises, bluster, bullying, blackmail and worse to come if this Brexit business is any guide. Are EU federalisation supporters under some kind of hypnosis, or just uncaring about the fate of the disenfranchised? And why would they support for illegal migrants to have the same benefits and rights as autochthonous legal citizens as yet nominally independent sovereign nation-states. EU-philes have much explaining to do.
I think Jacob Junker you are right to some extent but all the same i do not feel that people in power intend to hurt democracy. I think it sort of happens . I do think though,that there has been a bad attitude to people who are poor as if it were their own fault. I wonder how well any of us would do if we lived in a derelict way. with little hope.
About Manston.! It’s big supporter is Sir Roger Gale, who happens to be a Remain voter,. is pushing for a DCO because he believes that the airport should reopen. Smaller airports like Southhampton have done wonders for local economies.
Manston was owned by Infratil. It was very badly run with no investment made . It’s nickname was Lagos North..Infratil is very closely connected with Stagecoach.There is even Stagecoach New Zealand. So perhaps the airport was sold within the family with the main aim to supply housing for London and a lot of puff about it being uneconomic. KLM’s flights to Schiphol were doing very well .
There is a panic in Government over housing, and quite rightly so, but what the people of Thanet want to encourage business to locate here as business needs to fly.. The same is true of our small port of Ramsgate.What we do not need is a vast housing estate as the council housing is sold off to developers
Don’t get me wrong as ther are great Garden Cities being built . There is one at Ebsfleet and the Hoo Peninsular.. But they are close to London and have the fast train service and i think within the Oyster card area..
Thanet needs it’s own economy., and that the airport will bring.
The general election was won because of the promise of the airport. Sir Roger has kep to his word unlike UKIP who have even lost the council with most of the UKIP councillors becoming Independent
Thanet is not a UKIP area as the London press like to report . Nigel farage did not win.and many who supported him withdrew over the airport.
The reason why there is peace in Europe is NATO and the fact that we have nukes and the Germans don’t. The EU has little to do with it.
Whilst I don’t agree with your whole post, your sentence ” It’s clearer than ever that Britain engaged in European integration mostly to reap some economic benefits, not for political reasons. This means that the narrative of peace and cooperation was completely lost on many in the UK. And when the economic benefits fell through, for them there was not even a shadow left of the real story of the European Union.” hits the nail on the head. Pursuing European integration only for the economic benefits of course is not a dishonourable position to take and of course the economic benefits are mutual – they flow both ways. It only becomes a problem when it is done dishonestly, and there /has/ been dishonesty around this issue. Mostly it has been Brits lying to themselves when they have ignored the political aims and powers of the EU (which are there in the treaties for all to read) and pretended that it was only about the money. The Remain campaign’s Project Fear of course only focused on the money issue.
The UK’s interest in economic integration only has been the case for ever and shows no sign of changing. This means that the only real sustainable long-term home for the UK is in the EEA alongside Norway and Iceland because that gives (most of) the economic benefits with fewer obligations of political integration. The tragedy is that incompetence by the UK government and an EU which overplayed its hand in the face of that incompetence means that this most sensible accommodation is unlikely to happen any time soon.
The idea of linking peace and economic prosperity (which is what the EU attempts to do) resonates much more strongly with the Germans than the Brits. Germany knows that economic problems can lead to warmongers coming to power and bloodshed. The British take a different lesson from WWII, that poverty, debt and economic destruction are a price worth paying for peace and independence.
There is also the lazy assumption that Brexit is a result of nostalgia for the Empire. Whilst that may be the case for a few people, the average Brit whatever they think about the rights and wrongs of the British Empire are glad that it is now over (in fact, I recall a survey showing that many times more Jamaicans wished that Britain was still running their country than Brits who wanted to be running Jamaica). The lesson we draw from the Empire and its loss is that despite the process of independence for former colonies being sometimes painful it was worth it in the end both politically and economically and that we can remain friends with a country without having to rule over it. Most Brits are supportive of the rights of self determination and they ask why if full sovereignty is a legitimate aim for the Irish, the Indians and even the Scots and Catalonians why does that principle not extend to the UK? Why is it legitimate, even praiseworthy, for Canada or Singapore to sit part from their respective larger federal neighbours whilst seeking friendship, cooperation and free trade whilst simultaneously fiercely guarding their independent sovereignty, but if the UK tries to do that it is stupid, racist or cherry-picking?
I understand and agree with much of what is being said here ..But besides the ” London elite” , the capital didn’t want Brexit, so where dowa that leave us? We who love multicultural societies , speak several languages and work with E.U citizens both as employers and employed by E.U I institutions .
We are not the London elite . We did NOT want this disaster