In his EU3D-funded master’s thesis, Simon Zemp analyses how Swiss newspapers have referred to Brexit as a benchmark when evaluating the recent attempts of the Swiss government to (re-)negotiate its bilateral relations with the EU. The results show that Brexit references were important in the public debate about the Swiss EU relationship and were often referred to as a ‘role model’.
Immediately after the British vote to leave the European Union, observers feared that Brexit might boost Euroscepticism in the rest of Europe. Since then, these fears have not been borne out. To the contrary, scholars have documented a reinforcement of support for EU integration in the aftermath of Brexit, indicating a deterrent effect of Brexit.
Benchmarking* Brexit: looking over the Channel matters for EU support
The British experience with Brexit constitutes a unique, highly informative precedent for disintegration. European citizens may take this information into account and adapt their opinion regarding their own country’s EU integration. Depending on how the own country’s performance is evaluated when benchmarked against Brexit, different changes in public opinion may result. For example, if Brexit is widely perceived as a success, citizens will consider a change in the status quo in a similar direction. On the contrary, benchmarking against a negatively evaluated Brexit experience will deter people from supporting disintegration steps and make them more appreciative of EU integration. Such benchmarking may play a crucial role for EU support among its member states (see de Vries 2017) as well as in externally integrated countries like Norway or Switzerland.
Do Europeans refer to Brexit as a ‘benchmark’? Novel evidence found in the analysis of Swiss media
Despite evidence strengthening the explanatory power of ‘Brexit benchmarks’, we lack observations from the real world that concretely show how people benchmark their own situation against Brexit. Since we can understand benchmarking as a thought process within people’s minds, it is obviously difficult to observe it. My study circumvented this difficulty with the help of a media framing analysis. The idea was to grasp the phenomenon of ‘benchmarking against Brexit’ in public discourses, as it is reflected in news media content.
The Swiss context presented itself for such an investigation as Swiss EU relations were high on the political agenda throughout the entire Brexit process. Foremost, the negotiation on an institutional framework agreement between 2014 and 2021 triggered intense public debates in Switzerland about the country’s future integration path.
By analysing articles from four Swiss newspapers of different political leanings, I found a total of 229 framings which evaluated Switzerland’s EU integration by referring explicitly to the Brexit process as a reference point. These frames reveal that ‘Brexit benchmarks’ played a prominent role in the Swiss public debate and that Brexit served as both a ‘deterrent’ and a ‘role model’ (see the box for two examples).
Evidence from Switzerland shows: Brexit is by no means just a deterrent!
Swiss media coverage contained ‘benchmark framings’ foremost during episodes of Brexit characterised by a high issue salience and a good comparability with the Swiss situation. The relatively short period when the UK under PM Johnson negotiated and adopted the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU at the end of 2021 stands out in the data. After the long-winded exit phase, the UK situation at this stage was well comparable to the Swiss attempt of getting external access to ‘Europe’ and commentators in the news have frequently benchmarked the Swiss situation against the salient Brexit events (see Figure 1).
Also, it was in this final negotiation phase under Johnson that newspapers framed Brexit increasingly as a ‘role model’. Foremost the British negotiation style and the concrete outcome of the negotiations were presented as admirable benchmarks, which helped to point out alleged flaws in the Swiss-EU negotiation. A total of 97 framings presented Brexit as a ‘role model benchmark’ for Switzerland. This number is astonishing, especially given the evidence indicating effects of ‘Brexit deterrence’ in European countries.
Besides the remarkable amount of ‘role model benchmarks’, Swiss news regularly referred to Brexit with a negative, deterrent framing (104 frames). Especially in tumultuous Brexit episodes, as in Spring 2019, benchmarking against Brexit tended to come with a negative framing; and the comparison with the UK made the Swiss situation appear more desirable. Here, Brexit references allowed to argue for the preservation of the Swiss status quo and against similar ‘experiments’ in the name of national sovereignty, which may endanger the relations with Europe.
Newspapers’ use of framing power when presenting Brexit as a benchmark
My data reveal that the political leaning of a newspaper is a decisive factor for understanding the way Brexit is framed as a benchmark in the media. For example, the Eurosceptic outlet ‘Weltwoche’ pointed extensively to the Brexit process as a benchmark and thereby used almost exclusively a ‘role model’ framing (in 60 out of 73 frames). More EU-friendly newspapers, like NZZ and Tages-Anzeiger, referred to Brexit with both ‘role model’ and ‘anti-role model’ framings, yet with a clear bias towards the latter. Interestingly, Eurosceptic commentators have (re)framed Brexit under PM Johnson as a success story by clearly separating his premiership from Theresa May’s, who was presented as the scapegoat for the negative experiences publicly associated with Brexit.
In conclusion, the findings from Switzerland indicate that the Brexit experience matters for public discussion and opinion formation on European (dis-)integration beyond the UK and that Europe is far from having ‘outlived’ the risk of ‘Brexit contagion’. After a tumultuous withdrawal process, the most fruitful years for framing Brexit as a role model for disintegration attempts may be yet to come. Certainly, the future performance of the UK outside the Union is key in this respect. Moreover, my study emphasises that we are also well-advised to keep a close eye on the hitherto neglected role of news media and political entrepreneurs: It is their ‘framing power’ that significantly influences whether Europeans perceive the British path as a role model or a deterrent.
* The verb to benchmark means to evaluate a situation by comparing it with a certain reference point⸺the benchmark.