Searching for ‘European Values’: Quality Newspapers and Immigration

European quality newspapers identify, interpret and defend ‘European values’. But there is no consensus on what these values actually mean. Volker Heins reports on a recent NoVaMigra roundtable discussion and argues that the value language conceals differences within the EU that should be addressed head-on.

Volker M. Heins, University of Duisburg-Essen / Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI)

On 22 February 2021, NoVaMigra held an online event on the recently published policy paper ‘Quality Newspapers vs. Populism’ which was followed by a roundtable discussion chaired by Martin Deleixhe (Paris). Participants were Volker Heins, the editor of the policy paper, Laura Bérard (Press Officer Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship), Christoph Dreyer (Media Relations Officer, Reporters Without Borders), Sándor Zsiros (European Affairs Correspondent, Euronews Brussels) and Rebecca Harms (Executive Board European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and former Member of the European Parliament).

What crisis?

Volker Heins started by reminding the audience that the NoVaMigra project is based on the assumption that the mass arrival of refugees in 2015 and afterwards did not by itself produce a crisis, but rather revealed a crisis and a lack of consensus among European citizens and the Member States about how to interpret the much-quoted shared values of the EU as they are laid down in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights or the Treaties. The situation created by the arrival of unprecedented numbers of refugees and other migrants was a crisis in the specific sense that it aroused and moved the whole of European society, although society was not moved uniformly in one direction only. The depth of the crisis was not due to the mere fact of large numbers of migrants arriving in Europe. Rather, this fact was interpreted by citizens, journalists, politicians and others as opening a period of intense social drama in which the fundamental values of Europe were at stake. Many will remember the rare emotional moment in the fall of 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the press that, “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country”. Similar comments can be found throughout the European press where numerous people voiced their opinion that depending how Europe responds to the mass movement of migrants, this would be no longer ‘their’ European Union.

This was the backdrop of the policy paper, which focuses on widely read quality newspapers in France, Germany, Poland and Sweden as well as on the special case of Hungary where press freedom has now been largely dismantled. The analysis presented in the paper canvassed national pro-immigration positions and how these positions were justified in terms of economic advantage, demography, humanitarian concerns, or fundamental rights.

Studying the period from 2013 to 2019, the authors of the policy paper were interested in the following four questions:

  • How salient is the issue of migration in different EU Member States and their quality newspapers?
  • Did the relevant newspapers frame the issues of refugee protection and immigration in terms of rights, following the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, or in terms of moral values such as hospitality or benevolence?
  • Did the different normative positions articulated by newspapers evolve towards some kind of middle ground, or did polarization prevail?
  • Do we see evidence that media discourses on refugees and immigrants explicitly refer to norms and values professed by the EU or did those discourses draw on other sources, for example national or global norms and values?

Three key findings

The policy paper offers three key findings which can be summarized as follows:

1. Quality newspapers are crucially important value agents as well as stages for public controversy. The critical role of some of the newspapers covered by the NoVaMigra policy paper consists in reminding European politicians and policymakers of the normative promises Europe rests on. More specifically, our search for pro-immigration arguments in European quality newspapers shows a massive rise of ‘value talk’ in the context of the refugee crisis in 2015 and afterwards. There is a positive correlation between the salience of the migration issue and the passion invested in the struggle over values. None of the newspapers of our sample argues in favour of immigration exclusively from an economic or utilitarian perspective, even though demographic trends and labor shortages play a role in media discourses both in Germany and in Poland, to name just these two countries.

2. The insistent invocation of values has led to serious conflicts both within and between EU Member States over their meanings and implications. However, within the world of quality newspapers, the degree of polarization is moderate. We found rather similar arguments in favour of immigration and in favour of admitting refugees across a broad range of papers from the French Le Monde to the German Süddeutsche Zeitung or the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza. More importantly, none of the more conservative papers read by us, for example the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Svenska Dagbladet are in principle opposed to immigration or the reception of refugees per se. In other words, there is a broad zone of agreement among quality newspapers in Europe with regard to migrants and refugees. In spite of their diversity, quality newspapers in Europe are a bulwark against far-right populism, Islamophobia and radical anti-immigration attitudes. Outlier positions of the far-right are largely articulated outside this section of the mediasphere.

3. Very few newspaper articles refer explicitly to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights or to ‘European values’. This raises the important question whether there is such a thing as European values at all. Journalists across Europe emphasize the values of dignity, solidarity, hospitality or cultural diversity, but few seem to agree that there is something distinctively European about these values or virtues. If we had taken a closer look at The Independent in Britain, the Los Angeles Times or Mail & Guardian in South Africa, we would most likely have found similar norms and values. In general, one could say that allegedly ‘European’ values are endorsed by newspapers and their readers in Member States where those values resonate with national values such as, for example, ‘dignity’ in Poland and Germany, or ‘solidarity’ in France. Sweden seems to be the only country in our sample where openness to immigration is itself a national value.

Where do we go from here?

One of the important lessons of the policy paper is that it is wrong to exaggerate the rift between the older western Member States and the more recent newcomers in eastern Europe. Our case study on Polish newspapers, for example, has shown that large sections of the Polish public are much closer to their western counterparts than many people outside of Poland assume. Where all citizens are free to express themselves, we can see that the dividing lines do not separate East and West, but criss-cross all over European society in both East and West.

This was a point taken up by Rebecca Harms who criticized a certain ‘media bias’ against eastern Europe. According to her, much of the pro-migrant activism in Poland or Hungary has been underreported by prominent newspapers in Paris, Berlin or Stockholm. At the same time, she added, papers often glossed over highly restrictive government policies in countries such as France or Denmark. This reading was supported by Hungarian journalist Sándor Zsiros who believes that many people in Hungary still support the ideal of a liberal and open Europe. The problem with Hungary, he insisted, is that elections are no longer free because there is no longer a free press and an open exchange of ideas. There is a vibrant civil society in Hungary, but it faces increasing difficulties to project its version of European values openly. On the other hand, the Hungarian government and its news media, like their counterparts in Poland or Slovenia, have hijacked the rhetoric of European values, pretending to defend Christian Europe against ‘Brussels’ and migrants from outside of Europe. The language of European values conceals very different, even incompatible normative vocabularies. One conclusion from the discussion was that these different normative vocabularies within the EU should be addressed directly and head-on.

There was also broad agreement that the EU could certainly do something, for example cutting off funding for authoritarian Member States, but that it is ultimately the peoples themselves, electorates and social movements, who must change their governments according to what they see as valid European norms and values. Until this happens, as Christoph Dreyer argued, many of the recommendations of the NoVaMigra policy report will fall flat. This is certainly true for our recommendation to defend and restore press freedom and independent journalism by all means. It is equally true for the hope articulated by Laura Bérard that the European Union might one day develop a common policy for better managing migration based on the proposals put forward by the Commission for a new Pact on Migration and Asylum. We will see whether this new policy will materialize and whether it will live up to Art. 67 TFEU, which calls for ‘solidarity between Member States’, but also for a common policy which ‘is fair towards third-country nationals’ including ‘stateless persons’.

Prof. Dr. Volker M. Heins is an associate professor for political theory at the University of Duisburg-Essen and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen. He can be contacted at volker.heins[at]

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