Ah, Brexit. First there was the tense build-up, then the dramatic result, followed by the drawn-out and frequently tedious aftermath. So how do you tell the story of the UK versus the EU? We went to the frontline to find out.
Kafsak first joined the FAZ as a trainee in 2000, returning to the Frankfurt daily four years later as its Brussels-based EU correspondent, after a stint at the Financial Times Germany. Since then the history, philosophy and economics graduate has been covering a wide spectrum of subjects revolving around the EU and Brexit.
How was the atmosphere in Brussels post-referendum?
I’d say 99 per cent were very surprised because no one expected the outcome to be what it was. Many expected a tight call but with a majority for the Remainers, and you saw the reaction of Jean-Claude Juncker – he was in shock. The evening before, I had a beer at the bar with a few friends and we looked at the polls. We were all convinced that the result would be in favour of the EU. When I looked at my phone the next morning I was surprised but not as shocked as some of my colleagues. I didn’t see it as this ground-shaking event because the EU can stomach something like this. It may even do some good when it comes to discussing what direction it should be heading in.
How much of your coverage revolves around Brexit?
When I think about the first couple of months it kept me quite busy. However, recently I’ve covered it less and less. The last summit, which decided on the transition period and what’s going to happen afterwards, didn’t really get any coverage in the FAZ. We did write about the agreement a couple of days beforehand but it focused on the trade wars; Brexit was just something mentioned in paragraph 15. German media has become less and less interested in it because there’s not much happening. It’s always the same old story.
What perennial questions do you have?
In the beginning we were particularly interested in how much the European side would ask of the British; we didn’t get an official figure from either side. This also applies to the Irish boarder question. When it comes to finding a detailed solution you don’t get an answer – perhaps because there is no easy answer.
What role did the media play in the run-up to the referendum and how would you define its role now?
It was surprising how weak the coverage was from all sides in the UK. When you look at the debate in London now, of course the media still has a major influence but when it comes to us, we don’t play a major role. The British public isn’t following what the German media is writing.
Do you think an example will be made out of the UK to prevent other nations from following suit?
Well, of course – it has to be. If one member decides to leave and the others don’t react in a united manner, and make clear that it’s not attractive for you to leave, then this would be the beginning of the end of the whole EU. If I am a member state of the EU and believe that it is an entity worth preserving, I need to make clear that leaving is not advantageous. We need a Brexit that makes clear that it’s actually bad for the UK and that it has nothing to do with trying to punish somebody, it’s just to preserve the European Union.
What does the EU mean to you personally?
I write about it every day but never really think about that. I don’t want to talk about it as a peace project, even though it is and it did help to unite and stabilise the continent – and I’m not only talking about the aftermath of the Second World War but also the Cold War. I think it’s good to get beyond nationalism and patriotism but 80 to 90 per cent of countries would probably disagree. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not highly critical of it: for example, how the monetary union is designed. I think economically speaking it’s the best thing that could have happened. It’s not perfect but it’s creating a lot of opportunities. I like the fact that there are hardly any borders left between member states and there’s a common currency uniting the continent.
The FT appointed Barker, who has been with the London-based daily since 2005, as its Brussels bureau chief a month ahead of the EU referendum. He’d previously spent five years in Brussels working as the newspaper’s European diplomatic editor and EU correspondent; before that he reported from Westminster as the UK political correspondent. It will come as no surprise, then, that he knows rather a lot about Brexit.
What was the atmosphere like in the aftermath of the referendum result?
It was pretty grim. There were tears around the place. I think when you see a whole generation of officials, whose lives are really turned upside down, all their career aspirations and family plans – it was as raw as it gets. You had a momentous political reaction but it was moving to see the personal side as well.
Did you vote for or against Brexit and how do you keep your reporting on such a subject balanced?
I tend not to tell people how I voted but clearly I spent a lot of time in the EU; you see its faults, you see the machine working in good times and bad, and that gives you a certain perspective on the EU. As a political project this is an experiment like no other. I try not to let my passions get in the way of my journalism. We call it straight, we ask the right questions and try to understand things as deeply as possible – and we don’t shy away from truths.
How do you keep the news fresh when you’re covering a story like Brexit?
It’s a challenge. It obviously gets tremendously technical at times and it’s our responsibility to understand and explain it as clearly as we can. We’ve also tried, in various pieces, to show the people behind the negotiation. We’ve tried to show how the power dynamics work and take people behind the door of the negotiating room.
Do you think the intention is to make an example of the UK to ensure other nations think twice about following suit?
Certainly at the beginning of the process there was a deep fear that this would be the first domino to fall and you’d see other member states potentially leaving the union. The whole negotiation emerged out of that context and it was structured around that concern, but I think that’s largely dissipated. If there is a lot of continuity while Britain cuts loose and enforces its own laws that would reduce the value of being a member of the club but I don’t think other nations will leave any time soon. Even parties that were pro leaving haven’t taken encouragement from the Brexit talks – quite the opposite, in fact. Rather than leaving and trying to get a better deal outside, nations may want to try and achieve it from the inside. If there is a stable, mutually beneficial and economically sound relationship established, where the UK can enjoy a degree of sovereignty, then maybe in 10 to 20 years’ time another country will consider it.
How do you approach your sources?
You establish relationships and try to build up trust with people on both sides – it’s standard journalism, really. Brussels is easier, to some extent, because it has many spheres of influence and power. It makes reporting in the city quite fun because it’s hard for them to keep secrets, and that’s good for our trade. Yet when you’re covering Brexit, there’s so much uncertainty. It’s not like there’s a safe somewhere that has all the answers. It’s a negotiation and it’s unprecedented. People are making judgement calls all the time. As a journalist you’re always looking at the next step, the next angle, the next contentious decision.
How are the different parts of this huge story being broken up?
James Blitz writes our Brexit briefing from London. We also have a Brexit editor, who oversees the coverage coming in. Some newspapers have appointed a special Brexit correspondent but that wasn’t necessary at the FT because the subject is so in the grain of what we do on a daily basis. Our structures were already in place and they offer a really comprehensive picture of what’s going on. Using our worldwide network is becoming more and more important.
Rasmussen Global was founded by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s former secretary-general, in 2014. It advises governments and companies on what to expect and why, in the form of intelligence, consultancy and campaigning. Schick manages Rasmussen’s data polling and specialises in EU policy, Russia policy and Brexit.
How do you get information on the Brexit negotiations?
I have some close contacts. Before joining Rasmussen I was at Open Europe [a think-tank focused on reforming the EU] and we played a pivotal role advising David Cameron to go for reform of the EU. It was his choice to call the referendum, of course. Britain has always had a special place in the EU; it managed to carve out a particular bunch of opt-outs and protect its interests in a way that no other European country had managed to do. This was overlooked during the referendum, of course.
So from the off there was a presentation problem with the Brexit referendum campaign?
Yes, there was a big problem with messaging and how it looked. I’m half-German and I can absolutely see how Germany and the German media saw it: blackmail. My former boss at Open Europe toured around Europe with Cameron advising him to push for EU reform but it was played and reported as Britain, once again, asking for further opt-outs and getting further from the centre of Europe. The way that Cameron presented it to the EU was toxic.
Do the UK and Germany view Europe differently?
I think so. At heart it’s an existential question: German identity, foreign policy and its way of thinking about its role in the world is all done via the EU. So as soon as a partner with similar liberal economic values says they’ll leave unless they get what they want, of course, that sets alarm bells ringing.
What are your sources and raw materials?
My primary sources are politicians on both sides. I’ll also read Handelsblatt, the FAZ, Bild, Die Welt, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, Le Figaro and Le Monde. That’s where I find the continental view. It’s a completely different tone to that of the UK, where I go for a variety of voices: the Daily Express and The Sun, all the way through to the FT. When there’s a big summit, for example, it’s amazing to see how the European press report it compared to the UK. And it goes to show just how much of vacuum the Brexit vote took place in.
When there is an EU briefing on Brexit, what are the UK and EU lines? How does the content change?
Both the EU and UK want to spin it to show that they’re being successful – but the fact is that one country can’t out-negotiate 27 others. However, the EU understands how sensitive this is for the British prime minister so is keen to show that Britain has been a tough negotiator, so that it doesn’t seem like it has just been a cakewalk. There are certain principles that the EU want to stick to, so they’ll drive a hard bargain on those, but they are keen not to allow Britain to lose too much face so that talks don’t break down. One thing both sides share is that they don’t want to be defined by Brexit. There are many other issues.
So there have been politics within the presentation of the politics?
Oh yes. If Donald Tusk or Jean-Claude Juncker make a speech they normally preface it with, “We’re sorry that you left us.” It seems the narrative in the UK has been a bit different, that every time something doesn’t go to plan it’s “They’re punishing us!” or “The civil servants are in cahoots with the EU!” There’s always someone to blame.
In your world of political advisory and consultancy, what was the atmosphere like after the vote?
It was a shock personally and then it was action stations. I’d been navigating this relationship for years and all of a sudden, people were calling every minute to ask what was going on. I mean, it was great for my career to be honest: suddenly people like me became very valuable to people who wanted to know what was going on and what it meant, even in the highest echelons of government.
How influential do you think the media was in the Brexit vote?
Hugely. If you look at the quality of the debate in the campaign – on both sides – it was terrible, extremely poor. Nobody understood the issues or what was at stake and it became a dogfight. It was ludicrous. So now we see that the issue is quite complicated and people are bored of it and want it to go away. In my view it’s extremely dangerous to hold a single-issue referendum on an amazingly complex issue.
The Daily Mail is the second most popular newspaper in the UK but perhaps the most influential. Under the firm editorship of Paul Dacre it has become known for a formidable focus: deeply critical of the EU, very pro-Brexit and fearful of the effects of immigration. It seems to know the mind of Middle England before it knows it itself – and maybe moulds it. Andrew Pierce became a journalist in 1979, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s election victory, and worked at The Times and The Daily Telegraph before joining the Mail.
How influential was the ‘Daily Mail’ in the vote?
The Daily Mail was a significant factor. You have to bear in mind it was a David versus Goliath battle. Remainers said it wasn’t fair and that all the press were on the side of Leave. They ignored the fact that the BBC was fundamentally and institutionally biased to Remain, and the government machine was biased to Remain, so it made it even more important that papers like the Mail fired on all pistons. I think we were a big factor when you consider how close the vote was – and it was close.
On a reporting level, what is the paper’s relationship with Europe like?
The EU spokesmen know where we’re coming from, which is all the more reason they should engage with us to try to put their side. But I have never, ever had a phone call from anyone at the European Commission offices in London. Why not? We pay for it. It’s funded out of our taxes. They had the cheek to move into 32 Smith Square, the spiritual home of the Tory party. It’s now called Europe House! They might have decided that I’m beyond the pale, of course, but actually we’d have a lively discussion. They’re probably talking to their mates at the FT, the BBC and the CBI, saying “Aren’t we clever and aren’t those people at the Mail and the Telegraph and The Sun ghastly barbarians?” Anyway, if they had invited me I’d have loved to have gone.
We’ve heard that Paul Dacre, after sending the final edition to print before the result of the referendum, went home and unplugged his TV, radio and internet because he was so nervous about the result. True?
Well, of course I don’t know what the editor does after he leaves the office. Personally, I had a hunch that we would leave. I put money on it – not enough! I put on £25 and I won about £200 or something. I also backed Trump. In the office the atmosphere was excited. It was dramatic. Our line wasn’t, “We told you so.” But everybody likes it, I think, when the establishment gets a kick in the teeth.
You have a correspondent in Brussels – what’s their relationship with the EU like?
Go back to the 1990s, when Boris Johnson made his name as a political journalist in Brussels writing stories about pink sausages under threat, and you’ll see you can make a name for yourself. The Daily Mail is a critical friend in Brussels and that’s what you’d expect.
The editorial line of the Mail is unflinching. How unified is that tone of voice, really?
I’ve been a journalist for getting on 40 years and the Daily Mail is without doubt the most efficient and professionally put together paper I’ve worked for. The editor is extraordinary; he’s just celebrated 25 years and there won’t be another like him. The paper reflects his views. You can feel Paul Dacre in it. He has an uncanny feel for what Middle England thinks, how its heart beats. It’s a hard place to work because the standards are high; my stuff has to compete with everybody else’s and the editor decides. He’s incredibly hands-on and has deputies who see the world through his eyes. There would be no point having a sopping-wet liberal Remainer as one of his deputies.
What about these deliberately button-pushing stories: bringing back blue passports or the Dambusters squadron. Can you get behind those?
Those are the issues that get the public talking. The left love to mock the Mail for its campaigns. Over 300,000 people signed the blue-passports petition. I remember thinking it would be a terrible irony if the Home Office screwed it up and gave it to a foreign firm – and oh my God, they did. I should have put a bet on that too.
Does Brexit sell papers?
In the aftermath of the referendum it did because it was an historic vote.
Where do you go on holiday?
I love Europe. I like to go to Greece and think they should have been allowed to leave the Euro. I love Rome and I love Barcelona, one of my favourite cities. I’m a passionate European but I’m passionately against the EU.
Tony Connelly is Europe editor for Ireland’s RTÉ News. His began his career at the Oxford Courier and joined RTÉ News as a television and radio reporter in 1994 and has been based in Brussels since 2001. He has reported on conflicts in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Gaza, Iraq and Kosovo, and is the author of a book called Brexit and Ireland: the Dangers, the Opportunities, the Inside Story of the Irish Response.
Where were you when the result of the Brexit vote was announced?
I was here in Brussels. And on the night of the vote there was a yellow sky ripped with thunder and forked lightning. It looked almost apocalyptic. For months my considered view had been that it would be a close Remain win but that was whittled down by anecdotal reports from friends and colleagues who had passed through the UK and picked up on a lot of Leave sentiment.
How did the news go down in Brussels in the days that followed?
There was widespread shock. Those who felt it most acutely were British civil servants working in the UK delegation to the EU, as this outcome was going to change lives and careers. There was genuine sadness and disbelief, and some anger. There were some who wanted Britain to trigger Article 50 immediately but cooler heads prevailed.
And how was the news met in Ireland?
There was also real shock there. The Irish civil service had done a considerable amount of contingency planning and risk assessment but the vast majority of the economy was completely knocked off guard. There are deeply interwoven agri-food supply chains that run north and south, and across and back to the island of Britain.
From having interviewed people in Brussels, do you get the impression there is any sense of hope that somehow Brexit is going to have some positive effect on the EU?
There are mixed views. The more federalist-minded believe that the EU can pursue deeper integration now that the UK, and her historically recalcitrant posture in Europe, is out of the way. At the top, Jean-Claude Juncker and President Macron have a bolder, less risk-averse vision of the future direction. But I think there has been mainstream caution about the EU taking any giant steps forward. People remember the brutal experience of austerity – and the Greek and refugee crises – and as a result they understand that populism has to be responded to in a measured way.
Does RTÉ maintain an editorial line on Brexit and its fallout?
As with any story, RTÉ is under a statutory obligation to be fair, balanced and impartial. But it was a difficult balancing act, as right across the Irish political spectrum there were very few who thought Brexit was a good thing. I am required to be neutral so I am not allowed to side with one argument or the other.
Have you interviewed anyone who has managed to sum up the whole debate in a memorable way?
One that sticks out was the CEO of a company that dramatically cut its operations in the UK in the year after Brexit. He said Brexit was a good thing: it would force Irish people to shed their historic inclination to “hop on the boat” to the UK for work or commercial expansion, and to get out into the world instead. “We have to start learning Spanish and Chinese,” he said. “Otherwise we’re screwed.”
In Ireland, are there particular figures on either side of the Brexit debate who are regarded as heroes and villains?
The debate in Ireland is strange in that most people are on the same side, saying that Brexit is a disastrous mistake that will cause tremendous damage to the Irish economy. So the debate tends to be about how well, or otherwise, the government is standing firm on Ireland’s position, and how far the EU will support the country. The villains would tend to be the likes of Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, especially if they pronounce (from a distance) on the Irish issue. The Irish tend not to exalt heroes in politics – hero worship is left to the rugby field these days.