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Immigration Is Not the Primary Concern of Most EU Voters, Polls Show

With just weeks to go before EU Parliament elections, a newly-released study shows that, despite a rise in anti-immigration rhetoric, many Eastern and Southern Europeans say they are more worried about other things - including emigration, cost of living, corruption, and unemployment.

There’s no mistaking the rise in anti-migrant rhetoric across Europe. In Hungary, Viktor Orban rode it to re-election, and in Italy, anti-migrant sentiment was a major platform for Matteo Salvini’s League. In Spain, too, Vox came to power in regional elections with a similar platform, and Brexit is also partially driven by anxiety over migration. There is no doubt, that similar sentiments will be on display, in the month leading up to European Parliament elections, despite the fact that the number of migrants arriving has dropped.

Yet, an intriguing new study released, shows that while anti-migrant rhetoric remains high, the average voter cares more about other issues. In fact, many Europeans in the south and east, worry more about emigration than they do about immigration.

Emigration, which is when people leave their countries to settle elsewhere, consistently polled high as a concern. In Hungary, 39% of those polled, named it as one of their top two concerns in this election, followed closely by Italy at 32%. (However, 34% and 35%, respectively, answered that they are equally concerned by both.) In Spain, the number was higher at 34%, and higher still in Romania at 55%. Even in Poland, 30% of those polled saw it as a significant issue.

“It is one of the main revelations of our study: Emigration is a concern that must be addressed”, said ECFR political analyst, Pawel Zerka.

In these countries, where emigration was a leading concern, a majority of those surveyed said they would support legislation aimed at preventing citizens from leaving for an extended period of time – essentially mandating a sort of self-imposed imprisonment. This runs counter to the freedom of movement enjoyed in the EU.

“In a Europe that prides itself on tearing down borders and promoting free travel, this move towards self-imprisonment is remarkable, but perhaps understandable”, wrote EFCR director, Mark Leonard. “In Romania, one in five citizens have left their country over the last decade.” That is a whopping 20% of the total population. Those left behind may be so desperate, they are willing to construct barriers for themselves and their countrymen, in an attempt to stem the tide.

Despite Orban and Salvini considering the elections something of a referendum on migration, according to a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study, conducted by the YouGov polling firm, most citizens simply do not agree. In fact, only 23% of those polled, cited immigration as one of the top two issues facing their country at the moment. That’s a comparable figure to the proportion of people citing unemployment (20%), cost of living (18%), healthcare (17%), and corruption in politics (16%).

France was a totally different story: 36% of the respondents agreed, that living costs are the main issue of concern in this election, as opposed to only 21%, who consider migration to be of  primary concern.

“Most European leaders blindly subscribed to the idea, that immigration was European citizens’ one and only preoccupation, but that’s a myth”,  Zerka told FRANCE 24. In fact, most surveyed did not say that immigration particularly affected their lives, identity, or security. However, many surveyed did express the perception that migration had a negative impact on crime and security at the nation-wide level.


In Romania, 20% of the population has left the country in the past decade. Copyright: Leremy / shutterstock.com

Of all the states surveyed, only Hungarians considered migration a major threat to the EU. Nevertheless, Leonard says that this is “little wonder, given the endless stream of propaganda that Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, puts out through his state-controlled media.”

Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow and Director of the European Power programme at ECFR, added that the results of the survey show a much more complex picture about demographic changes and integration, than what some politicians promote – and 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”.

“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.”

This isn’t to say that immigration won’t play a role in upcoming election campaigns. Far-right and Eurosceptic parties, are coalescing around this viscerally emotional issue, especially seeking to capitalise on the sentiments of the 22% polled, who saw Islamic radicalism as a major threat to Europe. Migration has been on people’s minds since the crisis in 2015-2016, and is easily used to leverage anti-EU sentiment – as it bridges radicalisation, nationalism, and immigration, and is likely to prove a very potent motivator for voters.

Salvini has recently unveiled a far-right Eurosceptic alliance, to take shape in the EU Parliament, consisting of members from parties like the Alternative for Germany, the Danish People’s Party, and the True Finns. Meanwhile, his fellow nationalist, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, though ideologically aligned, have chosen to remain part of the majority centre-right European People’s Party.

“The idea is to no longer have a centralised, one-size-fits-all Europe, but to give back the power to national parliaments, to create an honest cooperation between equal states, and abandon the dangerous utopia of a united states of Europe”, Marco Zanni, from Italy’s League, said.

Dennison notes that it all “sort of boils down to how these 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”.

“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.”

Mark Leonard agrees: “The EU elections have been sold as a battleground over the heart of Europe. Viktor Orban, Matteo Salvini, and Steve Bannon, have tried to turn the election into a referendum on migration; mobilising a sovereigntist coalition to dismantle the EU from inside. The findings from this poll should give heart to pro-Europeans, and show that there are still votes to be won, on major issues such as climate change, healthcare, housing, and living standards. They will be making a strategic blunder if they accept the framing of the anti-European parties, that this election will be won or lost on migration alone.”

“To mobilise these voter constituencies, though, pro-European parties need to provide a serious and honest assessment of the EU’s failings. They must be international and outward-looking reformers, who will speak and act for Europe’s moderate majority.”

Ultimately, Europeans remain divided on the issue, and on their assessment of the economy and society at large. Pessimists, such as those who are economically or socially precarious, accounting for about 51%, are inclined to be more dissatisfied, critical, and sympathetic to nationalist-populist movements. On the other hand, optimists, accounting for 49%, who are largely satisfied with the state of things, remain pro-EU, and support pro-European parties. In some good news, over 60% report being satisfied living in Europe.

Overall, polls show that the populist surge is likely to be contained, but only with a broad coalition – though whether it holds up in the face of Salvini’s new right-wing Eurosceptic alliance remains to be seen.

Europeans are all in agreement on one thing: Roughly two-thirds of all citizens want to take part in the European elections in May.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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