The European Union generally suffers from excessively poor press. The negatives of membership are overstated, whilst the benefits are underreported. This has warped people’s perceptions of the EU and led to an increase in Euroscepticism. Mass immigration is frequently touted as one of the downsides to the EU, but there are almost as many Brits living across Europe as there are European migrants living in Britain. The British press rarely delves into the nuance of these issues and generally posits Britain as a victim of the EU, rather than a beneficiary. This essay will explore how the perceptions of the British public on the European Union mirror the image portrayed in the national press. How, by fixating on more scandalous stories, the press has distorted people’s perceptions of the EU. Also, how the press has also encouraged minor Eurosceptic parties, like UKIP, to wield serious influence in British politics. As the public’s primary source of information, the press wield significant power and have helped mould the prevailing Euro scepticism in the UK.
Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been a complex one. The British public hesitantly entered into the EU on the premise of the economic benefits of the free market. However, since the 1970s, Britain has been a net contributor to the EU budget. The UK does contribute around £20 billion a year to the European Union. This is clearly a significant figure, but it also ignores the £8 billion the UK receives through subsidies each year. Since the 1970s, the power the European Union has gradually extended its powers and influence over the UK. This has naturally met some opposition in nation like the UK, which has relatively high levels of nationalism. Over the years, British people have been the least likely people in Europe to identify themselves as European or partly European. So, to some degree, there is an almost understandable base level of Euroscepticism in British culture. The British state contributes a large amount of money, much of which is spent on bureaucracy, and it’s hard to determine exactly how much Britain receives in return. However, there is far more complexity to these issues and this nuance tends to be ignored by much of the British press.
Whilst there has always been some degree of Euro scepticism in British culture, it must be understood just how influential the press is in forming the opinion of the public, particularly when it comes to Europe. Numerous studies have highlighted the incredible influence that the British press has over the public’s perception of the EU. These studies have shown that positive or negative media coverage will shift public perception of the EU in the corresponding direction. Eurosceptic newspapers, like The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, make up the majority of the British newspaper industry’s readership. There are newspapers, such as the Guardian and The Financial Times, which offer a more balanced perspective, but these publications have a more limited readership. Around three quarters of the total daily newspapers sold in the UK have a Eurosceptic standpoint. Several of these publications, such as The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail, target an audience who are demographically less wealthy, less educated and therefore potentially easier to influence. According to the 2010 National Readership Survey, the demographic for these newspapers was largely “C2DE”, which means “skilled working class”, “working class” and “those at the lowest level of subsistence”.
The European Union is generally associated in the British press with mass immigration and benefits tourism; however this impression doesn’t match the facts. Frequently in the British press the typical European migrant to the UK is portrayed as being poorly educated and reliant on state benefits. However, European migrants have paid back 34% more in tax than they have claimed in benefits, whereas native British citizens paid 11% less in tax than they claimed in benefits. They are also far more likely to have a university degree than native British people. In total, EU migrants contribute £20 billion to the British economy. As this is not the impression portrayed in the media, only 31% of people view membership of the EU as economically beneficial whilst 49% of people view membership as economically harmful.
Health tourism has become a particular emotive topic of discussion in the press, with many “right of centre” newspapers contesting that European migrants are coming to the UK to use the NHS. Government reports suggest that “health tourism” is costing the NHS somewhere between £70 million and £300 million a year. Whilst those numbers may seem high, this only amounts to between 0.07% and 0.29% of the NHS’s annual £104 billion budget. Newspapers, like The Express, claim that migrants “plunder” the National Health Service. However, figures from the Department of Health show that the cost to other European health services of treating British people is five times higher than the cost to the NHS of treating Europeans. This would suggest that the European Union is incredibly effective at keeping British healthcare costs down, however there are very few members of the press suggesting this. Therefore, European migrants are seen as being a drain on British resources.
The clearest illustration of the press encouraging anti-European sentiment has been the rise of the UK Independence Party. In recent years, UKIP have benefitted from an unprecedented level of coverage for such a small party. Between 2009 and 2013, UKIP representatives appeared on the BBC’s flagship political discussion show Question Time a total of 21 times. This figure is double the appearances made by either the Greens or Respect. UKIP received over 23,000 mentions in British newspapers in 2013 alone. The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, received almost 9,000 mentions. This figure was just shy of half the mentions for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. This media attention came at a time when UKIP did not have a single MP. This attention also dwarfs other minor parties that did have MPs, such as Respect and the Green Party. Two of UKIP’s largest surges in the polls were immediately preceded by surges of media attention. UKIP have seen a disproportionate level of coverage, particularly when the press discuss immigration. Over 40% of articles on the topic of immigration in 2013 made a reference to UKIP. This has artificially raised the profile of UKIP from a fringe party to a legitimate political force, further encouraging anti-European feeling.
To a high degree, print media still sets the agenda in British politics. The overwhelming majority of newspapers read in the UK are highly critical of the EU. This has legitimised and encouraged the rise of fringe parties like UKIP and encouraged established parties to take tougher stances on Europe. The European Union is not blameless in this situation and there are legitimate concerns that the press should explore. Many people do genuinely find the cost of the EU to be concerning and struggle to see the benefit membership brings to them. However, the debate is being formed and moulded by the press in a manner that automatically assumes that membership is harmful, without offering significant or legitimate information to balance the argument.