Incompetent political leaders and the media are destroying Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Kristian Thulesen Dahl, the leader of the Eurosceptic Danish People's Party. [News Oresund/Flickr]

It has become trendy among politicians and the media to portray the EU as a faceless horrifying monster which has caused the crisis that Europe currently faces. Nothing could be further from the truth, writes Marlene Wind.

Marlene Wind is a professor of political science and law at the University of Copenhagen.

A few weeks ago, the Swiss research institute Media Tenor published an analysis, which showed that British broadcaster BBC, over the last 15 years, had provided more negative coverage about the EU than about Vladimir Putin.

While it has long been posited that the BBC is too EU-friendly, it is now a documented fact that only 7% of the BBC’s coverage over the last 15 years was EU positive. Last year alone, 45% of the coverage was directly negative – the same score as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, while Putin’s comings and goings were only mentioned negatively in 30% of the its news coverage.

We all know the EU angle of the British tabloids, but few had probably expected the same from a government-funded stronghold like the BBC. Especially now that the British are about to find out whether they want to stay in the EU, it is obviously worrying that the BBC has been so one-sided and consistently negative in the framing of their EU stories.

Though it has always been there, talking the EU down is – it seems – the new big trend in national news media coverage, and not something reserved for the British broadcasters. Recently the Danish daily newspaper Berlingske – which earlier had a very pro-EU profile – decided to publish a two-page unspecified EU-negative interview with Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen (Liberal).

The day after, the Danish People’s Party leader, Thulesen Dahl, was lucky to get the same huge attention. Two whole pages and no critical questions asked. What the editors thought was important for the Danish readers to know was (surprise!) that Mr. Thulesen Dahl wanted to follow the Brits out of Europe if Brexit happens.

Don’t get me wrong here. Well-placed and relevant criticism of the EU (as of national politics) should always be welcomed. The issue that I am trying to address here is the repetitive news-framing of EU related problems as something that is always fostered in Brussels – never in the national capitals.

If the survey of the BBC’s EU coverage and the case of the Danish (most cited) daily are not a symptom of a bigger tendency, it would of course be of minor importance. However, what characterises the debate on Europe everywhere at the moment, is an unprecedented mockery and even contempt for the joint project, which brave politicians and intellectuals painstakingly built up on the ashes of World War II.

In other words, it has become hip to be Eurosceptic. It provides a tailwind for any political impersonator – commentator or editor – who wants to be popular and make themself interesting. However, regrettably the EU blame game is rarely – if ever – followed by the slightest vision of what should replace the EU we know.

What is almost even worse than negative framing and popular editorial EU-bashing is the constant and it seems continuing mixing up of who the EU actually is. If you ask politicians and commentators in the news, they constantly blame the EU rather than the national capitals for the malaise of Europe.

In addition, as an EU-expert in Denmark, I consistently receive questions from journalists like: ‘Why is the EU so bad at handling the refugee situation?’ and ‘Is the current crisis not a good example of a completely failed EU project’? But who is the EU and who is to blame here? Is it really ‘excessive bureaucracy in Brussels’ that doesn’t deliver on the results? Or rather, the national heads of state and governments who currently live in denial passing on problems – like asylum seekers – to each other?

The EU is not an abstract monster and does neither more nor less than what the member states want it to do. The European Commission (which journalists often use as alias for the EU) does not make decisions by itself. It proposes solutions on everything from climate change to banking regulation and trade. The latest example is a common refugee policy.

So no. The Commission has NOT been sitting idle watching refugees invade the borders of Europe. On the contrary, it has for years warned that even very large refugee flows were a political risk that should be taken very seriously and not least acted on. But what has happened?

National political leaders have resorted to their worst instincts in this crisis and relied almost entirely on national measures of wire, teargas and taking jewellery from refugees. The policy that has almost put the EU’s precious Schengen zone in the ground is a complete scandal and an embarrassment to us all in Europe.

Blaming the EU for what national politicians – with a few exceptions – must be sole responsible for, is outright wrong. Ms. Merkel has of course been an exception in this respect but she is increasingly being ridiculed by politicians and commentators in the national media for her open door policy. What she did was to be a leader hoping that everyone else would follow. Had the EU followed her and divided the refugees between them there had been no problem at all.

What I am saying is not that Europe should leave its borders wide open. On the contrary, the EU needs to take back control of its own external borders. Europe’s refugee policy should not be left to reckless smugglers and Putin, who with a confident smile on his face currently watches what he most wants to see: incompetent European leaders who – by their own hand – send Europe against a slow, but painful death.

We are witnessing a failure of dimensions in European history. Not by the EU, but by modern political leaders who are actually afraid to lead. It is an illusion in both the Brexit campaign and in most other European capitals that you become more independent as a nation by standing alone. Nothing would be more wrong.

The fantastic thing about a collaboration as the one we have in Europe is precisely that – even as a small nation (which the Brits actually are the big picture) – you have a chance to influence the world constructively.

Leaving the EU, you will sail alone on an unknown big ocean. This was Obama’s message to the British when he visited them a few weeks ago. This would apply tenfold for us in Denmark.

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