The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the European media drives different views of the European Union

Candidate for the European Commission presidency Jean-Claude Juncker arrives at an European People’s Party meeting in Brussels, ahead of an informal dinner of European Union leaders on May 27. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
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Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from political scientists Simon Hix (London School of Economics) and Stuart Wilks-Heeg (University of Liverpool).


You would need to be a close follower of European Union-politics to have noticed, but a new word has entered the English language (in Europe at least): Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates).  The fact that this is a German word already, and that it has only appeared six times in the British press so far this year, tells us a lot about how different countries experienced the 2014 European Parliament elections.  Although the European Parliament has been elected in pan-European elections every five years since 1979, this was the first time that European-level political parties had proposed rival candidates for the most powerful executive office in the E.U. – the commission president – prior to the elections: Jean-Claude Juncker for the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), Martin Schulz for the Socialists and Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt for the Liberals, Ska Keller and José Bové for the Greens, and Alexis Tsipras for the European Left.

Now the elections are over, a battle has emerged between Germany and Britain about who should be the next commission president.  For Chancellor Angela Merkel and most of the political establishment in Germany, it must be Juncker, because his EPP party emerged as the largest group in the new European Parliament.  As Der Spiegel declared in an editorial on 3 June: “The EU cannot … refuse to give the people of Europe what was assured to them before the election – that they could use their vote to determine the next president of the European Commission.”  For British Prime Minister David Cameron and most of the British political establishment, in contrast, the Spitzenkandidaten process should be ignored by the European Council, on the grounds that the heads of government must retain their sovereign right to choose the commission president: “Block Juncker to Save Democracy”, Gideon Rachman exhorted in The Financial Times

Why such a different reaction?  Part of the answer almost certainly lies in how the German and British media portrayed the campaign between the Spitzenkandidaten.  Most fundamentally of all, there was enormous variation in the extent to which media coverage in the two countries made reference to any of the Spitzenkandidaten.  In turn, these variations in volumes of media reporting had a major influence in the degree to which voters in both countries were aware of the existence of lead candidates.

Our first chart illustrates the dramatic contrast between German and British media coverage.  It presents a weekly count (beginning March 31, 2014) of the total number of press reports in each country that cited both “Juncker” and “Schulz”, the rival Spitzenkandidaten nominated by the two largest party groupings (derived from the Library Press Display database which provide comprehensive coverage of the print versions of national and regional titles published in both countries).  As the figure shows, the British press engaged in virtually no discussion of the two leading candidates in the eight weeks before the election or in the week after the election.  In total, there were only 27 news articles that mentioned both Juncker and Schulz; an average of three per week.  Over the same period, there were 1,905 articles in the German press that contained the names of these two.  The bulk of this coverage occurred from early May onwards, with a sharp peak in coverage evident from week commencing 5 May.  There was also a second peak in German media reporting in the week after the elections (commencing 26 May).  We return to the significance of both of these peaks later in this post.

These contrasts in German and British press coverage are not limited to the two candidates with the highest profile.  Our second chart compares the number of articles published in the two countries in which each individual candidate was named.  Again, the figures are presented on a weekly basis but each name has been searched for separately, rather than in combination.  In addition, the totals for the two Green candidates have been combined.

The absolute dominance of Juncker and Schulz in German press reporting is evident here, as is the contrast in the extent to which each candidate was mentioned in the British press each week.  Yet, the differences in the attention paid to the other Spitzenkandidaten is just as stark.  From 12-25 May, Alexis Tsipras,  Guy Verhofstadt, and Ska Keller/José Bové received, respectively, three, five and 21 times more exposure in the German than the British press.

Another telling finding is that the peak period of references to any candidate in the British press occurred in the week after the elections, when Jean-Claude Juncker was mentioned 61 times.  This pattern is shown more clearly in our third chart, which documents just the number of British press reports making mention of each candidate over the same period.  Here we have used the Lexis Library database, which has the advantage of including all web-published content.  Consequently, the number of name citations for each candidate is slightly higher than in the previous chart.

Again, the extremely modest amount of coverage of the contest is striking.  But, as noted above, what is especially apparent is the huge leap in post-election mentions of Jean-Claude Juncker.  This spike is easily explained, as it reflects David Cameron’s efforts to prevent Juncker from becoming Commission President.  Similarly, the volume of references to both Juncker and Schulz in the German press from May 26 to June 1 is largely a product of political and journalistic reaction to Cameron’s attempts to overturn the outcome of the Spitzenkandidaten process.

A further important observation should be made about the surge in German press coverage of the rival Spitzenkandidaten in the week commencing May 5.  This was the week during which the third of the seven televised Spitzenkandidaten debates, in this instance in German, was transmitted by public broadcasters in Germany and Austria.  While none of the debates secured large audiences, a survey by the German-based pollsters AMR estimated that 18 percent of Germans had watched at least part of one debate; the fourth highest figure among the 15 countries where polling was carried out.  Moreover, these viewing figures and the associated press coverage were clearly instrumental in raising popular awareness of the Spitzenkandidaten in Germany, particularly in comparison to the Britain.

As the next chart shows, compiled using the headline national-level figures from the AMR GmbH Dusseldorf survey, there was a strong correlation between viewing of the television debates and the ability to name at least one of the candidates unaided.  In Luxembourg, where 36 percent said they had watched at least some of the televised debates, more than half could name one of the candidates.  In the UK, in contrast, where 7 percent claimed to have watched a debate (a figure which seems questionably high), only 1 percent could name any of the candidates.  Clearly, the extent of, and attention to, media coverage is not the only explanation for the variations presented here.  Tellingly, the three countries which appear furthest above the regression line (Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany) are also the nationalities of the individual candidates: Juncker is Luxembourgeois, Verhofstadt is Belgian, and both Schulz and Keller are German (the comparably lower proportion of Greeks able to name a candidate is, however, puzzling given the profile of Alexis Tsipras).

Battles between governments over the interpretation of the European Union Treaty are reasonably common in E.U. politics.  But what is perhaps surprising this time – and more worrying for the future of the E.U. and Anglo-German relations – is how the media in Germany and the Britain have taken completely different views of the process.  The different levels of media coverage of the campaign for the commission president is one of the main reasons why German and British voters and the political elites in Berlin and Paris have a completely different understanding of how European Parliament elections work.

The battle over the Spitzenkandidaten process is not going to be easy to solve.  The inherent tension in the design of the E.U. since its birth – between an emerging democratic federal union and an intergovernmental association – has come to a head.  How Merkel, Cameron the rest resolve this tension could shape the future of Europe and Britain’s relationship with the rest of the continent for decades to come.