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Jenni Räikkönen: The UK was insecure about its role in the EU

Tampere University
Location Kalevantie 5 , Tampere
Room K103, Linna building
Date19.4.2024 9.00–13.00
Entrance feeFree of charge
Photo: Jonne Renvall/Tampereen yliopisto
In June 2016, a majority of the British people voted for leaving the European Union. In political discourse, the United Kingdom had been represented as separate from the EU already long before this. In her docotoral dissertation, MA Jenni Räikkönen studied EU-related language use in British parliamentary debates and newspaper articles in years 1973 to 2015. The findings show that the UK was represented as a leader in the EU but also as a country in the margins, which caused insecurity about what the UK’s role in the EU actually is.

The UK is an island, geographically separate from the continental Europe. In addition, the UK has been a significant global power: it has a colonial past and its economy is one of the largest in the world. These issues were reflected in the way in which the UK reacted to the integration process and the EU’s increasing power, and how the EU was talked about in political contexts.

In British political discourse, the UK was commonly represented as a leader in the EU: “we” are ahead and above others, “we” are more rational than the continental countries. At the same time, however, the UK was also represented as being insecure of its role and even as being a marginal country in the EU. In the parliamentary debates and especially in newspapers supporting the political right, the UK was represented as separate and different from other European countries.

By analysing the use of the pronouns we and us and their co-texts, Räikkönen examined how the EU was represented in British political language and whether or not the UK was represented as being part of the EU. The data consisted of all the debates of the British House of Commons in 1973–2015 and a selection of British EU-related newspaper articles in the same period. By combining quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis the study offers a wide look at how these pronouns were used as well as a more detailed account of how the UK was represented as a member of the EU.

“The findings suggest that the UK wanted to be at the heart of Europe. However, it was reluctant to integrate more, which made the country more marginal in the EU. This mismatch caused that the UK’s role in the EU remained unclear,” Räikkönen says.

The EU is a threat to “us”

The EU was represented as acting without “us” and its actions were represented as affecting “us” – typically in a negative way.

“In my data, the EU’s negative characteristics were emphasized. Instead of focusing on what “we” the EU have planned to do together next, the EU and its decisions were seen as threatening “us” – the UK and its sovereignty,” Räikkönen states.

The pronoun we is one of the most important rhetorical tools used in political language. It can be used to unite, which is important in national identity construction. However, it can also be used to separate “us” from “them”. “We” are usually assigned with positive characteristics while “they” – the outsiders – are assigned with more negative characteristics.

Jenni Räikkönen’s dissertation gives us more information on the reasons behind Brexit. It shows that the EU was rarely included in “us” in British political language. The study also shows that the way the EU was talked about in the political language changed during the 2000s, when the EU was increasingly often discussed from the national perspective. When EU-related issues were discussed from the national perspective, the focus was on how the decisions made in the EU affect “us”, the British. Consequently, less attention was given on the EU’s processes.

British political discourse had a crucial role in affecting people’s attitudes towards the EU. Also, changes in political landscape influenced the language use.

“I think that the rise of the EU-critical UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) in the 2000s affected the language used in the British parliament. Especially the Conservative party had to react to the increasing Euroscepticism and talk more critically about the EU so that they would not lose voters to the UKIP,” Räikkönen says.

Public defence on Friday 19 April

The doctoral dissertation of MA Jenni Räikkönen in the field of English philology entitled Pronouns separating the UK from the EU: We and us in British newspaper articles and parliamentary debates in 1973–2015 will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences of Tampere University in Linna-building, auditorium K103 (address: Kalevantie 5, Tampere) at 12:00 on Friday 19 April 2024. The Opponent will be Professor Gerlinde Mautner from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria. The Custos will be Professor Päivi Pahta from Tampere University.

The doctoral dissertation is available online

The public defence can be followed via remote connection