One of the most shocking realizations I came to—when I moved to the UK from Hungary—was connected to how much our understanding of Brexit diverge.The Brexit my British peers knew of was nothing like the Hungarian media had reported about. Inspired by the different interpretations of Brexit towards the end of my education in the UK, I decided to dedicate my diploma work to the representation of Brexit in the Hungarian media. After having analyzed 418 articles written between 9 June and 22 June 2016 (i.e., two weeks before and two weeks after the referendum), I was surprised to have found that Brexit inspired Eurosceptic coverage in the Hungarian media.
In my Thesis, I was primarily interested in the mainstream representation of Brexit. To map political opinions across political biases, I decided to focus on two widely read online Hungarian news sites, index.hu and origo.hu. In 2016, index.hu was generally considered to be the largest left-leaning, independent online newspaper, while was on the right of the political spectrum.
The first thing to note is that the Hungarian media took the idea of Brexit before the referendum less seriously than afterwards
The first thing to note is that the Hungarian media took the idea of Brexit before the referendum less seriously than afterwards. In the two weeks preceding the referendum, publications about Brexit were rare and disinterested on both sites. Not so much after the referendum results were announced. On origo.hu, entries which contained the word ‘Brexit’ doubled in the following two weeks after the referendum, comparing to the two weeks before the referendum. On index.hu, on the other hand, there were ten times as many articles on Brexit in the same, post-referendum time frame as before. It was not only the interest in reporting about Brexit that had changed – but the narratives about the vote on EU membership, too.
Before the referendum took place, most Hungarian news discussed Brexit purely from an economic point of view. 59 per cent of the origo.hu articles that I analyzed and 44 per cent of the index.hu articles talked about the potential economic impact of Brexit. Rarely did any of these articles depict Brexit in a positive light. Instead, they outlined the disruption Brexit may cause to the financial system, to trade and fishing.
Before the referendum, there was something approximating a consensus across political biases that Brexit would be an economic disaster in the Hungarian media.
Perceptions started to shift only after the results were announced, and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union suddenly became an inevitable reality. Having read through more than two hundred articles written after the referendum on both sites, I would describe index.hu’s attitude towards Brexit as a disappointed fury, while origo.hu’s standpoint as rather confused.
Instead of continuing to depict Brexit as a primarily economic matter, index.hu became more interested in writing about Brexit’s impact on European institutions and on the prospects of European integration post-Brexit. The disappointment of index.hu with the results was apparent in these articles. They were blaming right-wing populism, lies and conspiracy theories for Brexit. One of these articles went as far as calling the United Kingdom a ‘hysterical troublemaker’. The article called the UK a ‘jerk’, arguing that maybe it is better for ‘the group of friends’ (i.e., EU member states) to be left alone by this ‘jerk’, because now, they can deepen their relationship (i.e., advance European integration) without constantly being disrupted by the UK.
By contrast, on origo.hu the referendum results caused some ideological confusion
By contrast, on origo.hu the referendum results caused some ideological confusion. On the one hand, this site regularly voiced the disappointment about losing the UK as an ‘ally’ on the European stage. Many may still remember that the Hungarian government had paid for an advertisement in the Daily Mail just before the referendum with the message ‘Hungary is proud to stand with you as a member of the European Union’. So, clearly, Brexit was not perceived to be in the interest of the Hungarian right. On the other hand, Brexit also made room for some Euroscepticism on origo.hu. The EU was regularly claimed to be arrogant in its handling of the UK, and the site argued that the EU should assess its own mistakes to understand why the UK has left, instead of just blaming populism for the UK’s exit.
Focusing more on Origo’s Euroscepticism, the extent of the boost to this narrative after the referendum is quite striking. While before the referendum there was not a single Origo article which would have used Brexit to criticise Brussels, once the UK made its opinion clear by leaving the EU, Hungarian conservatives felt that they can voice anti-EU sentiments more freely. While before the referendum 0% of Brexit-related Origo articles had Eurosceptic messaging, after the referendum 16% of Origo articles had a Eurosceptic undertone.
Most Eurosceptic criticism of origo.hu blamed the EU’s mismanagement of the migration crisis for Brexit. While Hungarian conservatives were right about the fact that ‘migration’ played an important role in the Brexit referendum, usually they seemed unaware of the detail that the two countries experienced a different type of migration. While the UK was just as concerned about migration from outside the EU as with mobility within the European Union, Hungarians were concerned only about migration from outside the EU’s borders. The different interpretations of what ‘migration’ means was a major difference between the two countries’ understanding of Brexit.
Let me highlight that—although the increase in Eurosceptic articles on origo.hu is impressive—it must not be forgotten that the overall judgement of Brexit did not change in the Hungarian media after the referendum results were announced. On the whole, 64,5 per cent of Index and 61 per cent of origo.hu articles depicted Brexit as a rather negative event.
The other main difference between how the Hungarian and the British political right understood the leave vote was the importance they attributed to national sovereignty. Brexiteers regularly claimed that they would vote Brexit even if it had a negative impact on the UK’s economy, because it is primarily a question of national sovereignty. That is, for Brexiteers, sovereignty was more important than the country’s economic advancement. Hungarian conservatives never fully appreciated this argument. As demonstrated above, origo.hu was primarily concerned about Brexit’s potential economic impact and rarely any of its articles considered the issue of sovereignty.
While Brexiteers argued that the EU is a threat to democracy, Hungarian conservatives were fixated on what might happen to the stock exchange if the UK leaves the EU. Well, while the stock exchange did not collapse after Brexit, the EU’s democratic deficit still remains unresolved.
Lili Zemplényi, trainee at Danube Institute