Europeans Are Just as Worried Over Emigration as Immigration
Italy’s Matteo Salvini gathers far-right parties from around Europe to forge an alliance of nationalists ahead of next month’s European Parliament elections. Milan, April 8. Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
By Frey Lindsay
In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, a survey from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows European voters are not as concerned with immigration as often believed. In fact, according to the results of the survey which was released last week, a majority of Europeans do not consider immigration to be the most important issue overall. Domestic issues such as corruption, living standards, and employment ranked as high or higher in voters’ minds in most countries.
Interestingly, when it does come to migration, several countries appear to be more worried about people leaving the country than those coming in. In one part of the survey respondents were asked whether they were more concerned with “people from elsewhere coming into our country” (immigration) or “people leaving our country” (emigration). Many countries’ answers lined up with their general reputation. Denmark, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands all scored very high for being more concerned about immigration (above 45%), whereas Greece, Romania and Spain all scored low.
Two countries who are ostensibly consumed with immigration worries stand out, however. Only 24% of Italians said they were more concerned with people coming in, while 32% said they were more concerned with people leaving (35% reported being equally concerned by both). The comparison is even starker in Hungary, where only 20% of people think immigration is the biggest concern and nearly double that, 39% were more worried about emigration (34% answered both).
These results are at odds with the prevailing story about the upcoming European Parliament elections. Thanks largely to the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant nationalist leaders in both countries, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Matteo Salvini in Italy, the elections have often been portrayed as a kind of referendum on immigration. Both Salvini and Orban, as well as such fellow-travelers as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš, have managed to drive home the idea that Europeans are fed up with Brussels forcing foreigners on them and want to take greater control of their borders. It has proven to be a very seductive narrative in a region consumed with angst over populism and sovereignty.
The ECFR survey casts doubt on the simplicity of this story.
The survey explored “whether or not the framing you hear from the far-right parties in Italy and Hungary and elsewhere was correct,” said Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow and Director of the European Power programme at ECFR. Dennison said she thinks the results of the survey show just how much the debate is being driven by leaders such as Orban and Salvini, “rather than this being something pushed from the bottom up among (Hungarian and Italian) voters.”
For anti-EU, sovereignty-minded leaders such as Salvini and Orban, immigration is a perfect issue to campaign on. It is a distinct and visceral way of talking about European interconnectedness, which is what they really care about. Since the migration crisis of 2015/2016, immigration has been high in people’s minds and the issue itself resonates on an emotional level, consisting as it does of physical, easily imagined things such as people, transport and fences. Dennison said this kind of issue is perfect for communicating larger anti-EU sentiment: “It sort of boils down to how this kind of anti-system parties work. They choose very clear issues on which they can have a very black and white message, and this allows them to send out a very clear campaign to their core base.”
The picture of migration sentiment in Europe painted by the ECFR survey is different from the vision offered by European nationalists. It shows that many countries are just as concerned with people leaving as staying, and that indicates larger concerns than just xenophobia. These are concerns about demographic change and integration which require a more nuanced approach than simply building fences. In a place such as Hungary for instance, the survey speaks more to concerns about change coming too quickly. “It’s more complex than simply saying they want fewer arrivals,” said Dennison, “what they want is a process to absorb the impact of people leaving and people coming, managing that change. It points towards integration policy solutions rather than border control policy solutions.”
One other standout from the ECFR survey, but in the other direction, is Romania. Only 10% of Romanians reported being more concerned with immigration, while 55% were more concerned about emigration. Romania, a country with deep economic problems largely associated with historically high emigration, is a good example of how the results of this survey should not be read simply as indicating ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-immigration’.
There were only 9.1 immigrants per 1,000 Romanians in 2017, according to EU numbers. This is on the lower end of the scale for EU member countries, but it is still higher than Italy and Hungary. Nonetheless, “Immigration is seen in a rather positive light, as the sole solution for the workers’ crisis in entire economic sectors due to the lack of Romanian laborers,” said Remus Gabriel Anghel, director of the Centre for Comparative Migration Studies at Romania’s Babeș-Bolyai University. At the same time, he said anti-Muslim sentiment (explicitly the driving force of Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration stance) is low, thanks to a historical presence of ethnic Turks and Tartars in Romania. That is to say, the presence of Muslims does not overly change Romanians’ image of their society.
The reasons for concern about migration can be varied, and ECFR’s Dennison said the issue requires attention to the nuance of why different people worry about it. “Whether it is about economic, cultural or safety concerns, I think looking at all of those together would enable you to unpack it a little bit more.”
With the European Parliamentary elections looming, Matteo Salvini is hoping to avoid that nuance. He has unveiled his new far-right group with members from Eurosceptic parties around Europe such as the Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns (Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party remains part of the majority center-right European People’s Party).
One of the main aims of the new group is to shape the EU’s agenda on borders, an issue for which Eurosceptics such as Salvini have been laying the groundwork for a long time. Dennison said that, though their survey shows a less clear picture on immigration than nationalists would have people believe, the issue is still very salient: ”I think the challenge for the pro-European parties now in the election is one of framing and changing the debate, to set out that in fact, the picture isn’t that simple and the policy responses aren’t either.”