Read: A new European political bloc wants to dismantle Europe
I should know: As an accredited member of the Brussels press corps who was a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and later The New York Times over more than a decade, I see colleagues locked in a daily struggle to reconcile the reality of complex pan-European decision making with national-news agendas and domestic politics.
European integration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU just 12 years ago; Hungary and Poland have been members for 15 years; Austria and Sweden for less than a quarter century. Britain, the first to vote to leave the EU, joined 46 years ago. Yet even after joining, most news has remained, to borrow a phrase from politics, local.
Even in a country such as France, which is among the bloc’s six founding members, many editors have little appetite for interviews with some of the most senior figures running the EU, unless they are French, Jean Quatremer, a polemical blogger and longtime Europe correspondent for Libération, a French daily, told me. To investigate wrongdoing and mismanagement at the European Commission, Quatremer often had to reach out for assistance from colleagues from countries like Germany and Italy.
“The more Europe develops … and the more the European Union looks like a federal state, there’s still no federalized press,” Quatremer said. At its origins, “there was no great popular movement demanding the European Union,” he said, and so “Europe is seen through the prism of states.”
One way to gin up interest in the EU is to lace reporting with satire. There are rich pickings, such as when the European Commission regulated toilet flushes, attempted to ban olive-oil jugs, or bought deluxe coffee machines that produced foul-tasting brews. (Mea culpa: I broke the coffee-machines story.)
Boris Johnson played his own role in this. Earlier in his career, the former British foreign secretary was the Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, and he frequently skewered European officials for focusing on minutiae such as the curvature of bananas. Although Johnson's articles were amusing, many of them were wildly exaggerated, and they served to reinforce the idea that the British were superior to hapless and meddlesome Eurocrats.
On a quotidian level, Brussels-based journalists exchange details over Twitter and in person about the shifting positions and compromises. Yet correspondents struggle to reflect that texture in their reports, and the national focus can sometimes make European integration seem like a mirage. Take, for example, media coverage of the quarterly economic outlook for the European Union and the member countries that use the euro, the tool meant to unite disparate economies and peoples with varied levels of prosperity. That shared endeavor was all but forgotten as correspondents asked questions about their own countries, in their own languages, to garner sound bites for their national media.