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Brexit barometer: what the neighbours are saying about us (Q3 2018)

As the UK enters the late stages of negotiations with the EU, many are still scratching their heads as to what outcome is achievable in the time remaining. The UK press remains as divided as ever. On 3rd October The Express triumphantly announced it was “Time to believe in Brexit Britain”, whilst less than a month ago The Observer was focusing on Sadiq Khan’s call for a new referendum on leaving the trading bloc.

It can be all too easy to get swept up in media narratives at home – but what of the media on the continent? At Withpr we work with journalists across Europe and the rest of the world. Our team is a wonderfully diverse mix that represents the best of talent from the UK, the EU and beyond. We felt it only right to discuss media narratives from some key EU members – especially those who we work with every day in our media relations activities. Here’s what we noticed in the third quarter of 2018 in German, French and Spanish media.

Germany: The German media landscape has always closely followed the UK news agenda. New pop culture phenomenon, the latest political development or a spout of bad weather – you name it, German journalists will cover it. Brexit has only amplified this interest. Before the referendum, nobody would really believe that Leave could win. The shock wave that rippled through Germany on the morning of the 24th June was therefore almost as large as the corresponding one in the UK. Many Germans – working in the media and elsewhere – felt almost personally insulted by the outcome. They couldn’t understand why the UK – a country they had been looking up to and seen as a companion in Western Europe – didn’t want to be friends anymore. The media coverage that we have seen in the two years since that fateful day is showing this feeling of betrayal.

Many large German publications, from the left-leaning weekly broadsheet Die Zeit to the more conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, are leaning towards mockery when reporting on some of the recurring figures in the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May, Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn – all are written about in a slightly bemused manner. Headlines such as “Lost by the North Sea” (‘Verloren an der Nordsee’) or “The Great BoJo Show” (‘Die große BoJo Show’) often make the UK and its politicians the butt of the joke. When covering the latest Labour and Conservative party conferences, journalists were keen to point out what was so obvious to them: “No Brexit is perfect” (‘Kein Brexit ist perfekt’). From a German point of view, none of the proposals currently on the table around Westminster were ever going to be accepted by the EU. Britain had made its bed and should now lie in it. According to the German media, this means that sooner or later, the UK will have to accept that they will be worse off out of the EU than within – no matter what deal they are ultimately going to settle on.

France: The French media haven’t seemed particularly interested in Brexit up until recent months. Most recently the main stories making the headlines in prominent publications including Le Figaro involved the dog owners’ protests outside parliament (‘Une manifestation canine contre le Brexit’) and the aerial disruption Brexit would cause as a consequence of a no-deal outcome (‘Quelles seront les conséquences du Brexit pour les voyageurs aériens?’). Despite a seemingly apathetic sentiment towards Brexit, French media are now ramping up their coverage of the news and taking more notice at the eventuality of a no-deal – an outcome they initially believed to be far too radical to occur. The influential centre-left newspaper Le Monde has discussed French concerns that not only would the UK financial centre lose the valuable legacy of selling products across the EU, but that Downing Street does not seem to mind!

Macron’s meeting with Theresa May at his Fort de Brégançon retreat in August had a mixed reception. Le Figaro acknowledged the French President was demonstrating a ‘position of openness’ towards Theresa May’s efforts at a pragmatic Brexit. Meanwhile, L’Humanité and Le Monde focussed on the idea that Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union would not solve a single problem, but instead create many more new and serious ones.

When it comes to Britain as a place to do business, French media see opportunities, and risks from Brexit – as do their businesses. Cynics argue that Brexit will help transform Britain into a tax haven, a perspective shared by Le Monde. All in all, French media still believe that a mutually beneficial agreement with Britain is still possible.

Spain: For leading Spanish centre-left title El País, there is a particular historical sore point that drives Spain’s resolve to challenge British patriotism around Brexit. That sore point is Gibraltar, which El País continues to refer to as a “British colony” (‘colonia británica’) – not quite the lexical choice we find in the UK any more. Understandably, the Gibraltar issue (largely absent from UK media) appeals to Spanish national pride, and is an unwitting opportunity for Spain to extend its hegemony in the Peninsula if Brexit leads Gibraltarians to seek a special deal with Spain.

As is to be expected, leading Spanish media are keen to maintain other EU states’ scepticism around the economic future and ease of doing business with the UK. Largely upholding the EU’s negotiating position, Spain’s leading media El País, ABC and El Mundo point to the major economic downsides. Disruption to freedom of movement is seen as a significant risk to the Spanish tourism sector. Boris Johnson is a key focal point for the media – no surprises there. ABC even went as far as describing him as Theresa May’s “chief headache” (‘principal dolor de cabeza’). But the power struggle between May and her former Foreign Secretary suggests, in the eyes of the press, a historical rival heading towards a fall from grace. But from a business perspective, this is no cause for optimism: UK tourists and wealthy pensioners ultimately help the Spanish coastal economies thrive.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, Withpr stands by the wealth of international talent we have, and the richness it brings to our company culture. We are a proud employer of non-UK nationals – this is what makes us an agency that truly operates across borders. Brexit or no, our diversity will remain a cornerstone of the dynamism and creativity that we bring to our global PR activities.

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