Election campaigns often reveal politicians’ perceptions of public opinion more clearly than when they are in power. The scramble for votes focuses their minds on what they think people want to hear. Recent elections in Europe have highlighted, among other things, that political leaders across the spectrum are now much more sensitive to public concerns about immigration.
In the recent French presidential elections, for example, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy placed significant emphasis on anti-immigrant rhetoric in the last few weeks of his campaign. Among many pronouncements, this included a threat to remove France from the Schengen area, the zone of passport-free travel in continental Europe.
Obviously, this was partly aimed at capturing the votes previously won by Marine Le Pen, the National Front candidate, but it reflected a broader assessment of popular opinion—that in times of crisis, a leader needs to be seen to look after his own citizens first.
Clearly it didn’t work for Mr. Sarkozy, but it would be wrong to think that the election of François Hollande is likely to bring with it a radical softening of France’s political discourse on immigration. Mr. Hollande still nods to the right on the issue, and has argued that limiting economic immigration is essential in an economic crisis. While Mr. Hollande was less open than Mr. Sarkozy in courting Le Pen voters, he was willing to acknowledge their anger and promised to ensure it is heard when he is in office.
This recognition of public concern about immigration has been politically necessary elsewhere in Europe, too. Across the Continent, economic stagnation, high unemployment and public-sector cuts provide a context in which immigrants are likely to be seen as a drain on finite resources and a threat to limited opportunities, particularly in the workplace.
Ipsos MORI’s global poll of 24 countries on attitudes to immigration included nine EU member states. In seven of them, the majority of those surveyed regard immigration as having had a negative impact on their country; Sweden and Poland were the only exceptions. Most citizens think there are too many immigrants in their country, and this tends to correlate most strongly with the perception that immigrants place a burden on public services.
Europeans’ fixation with the perceived negative aspects of immigration may have diluted their appreciation of immigration’s potential benefits. Compared to countries elsewhere in the world, our survey shows that European citizens are the least willing to accept that immigrants make their country a more interesting place to live.
These negative public attitudes toward immigration are of course influencing political calculations. Mr. Sarkozy’s threat to remove France from Schengen could be seen as electioneering, but the concern is real and shared by other member governments, including Germany’s, which co-signed the letter to the EU demanding increased rights for nations to reinstate border controls.
The failure to stem illegal migration across the Greek border with Turkey is currently the main focus of concern, and that is also the main area identified for action in the EU’s first “health check” of Schengen, published last week. This review found that 75% of illegal immigrants entering the Schengen area originate from Greece. But rather than seeing this as a reason for giving control back to individual countries, the EU concludes that more needs to be done to help Greece control its external borders.
European commissioners are worried that these concerns are causing governments to endanger the freedom of movement, goods and services that is “central to the European project,” as highlighted by Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner for home affairs. Commissioners, eager to ensure that decisions are reached consensually, can point to the fact that six in 10 EU citizens think decisions about immigration should be made jointly with the EU rather than unilaterally, according to a 2011 Eurobarometer report.
However, support for joint decision-making is only likely to exist if it fortifies the EU against unwanted migration. Findings from Eurobarometer also show that immigration policy is the key area the public wants European institutions to strengthen. Security rather than freedom is the course of the day for many Europeans when it comes to managing migration.
And as such, the future of Schengen is in doubt—if you listen to the public, at least. Our survey found that a majority of citizens in France (64%), Belgium (62%), Italy (62%), Sweden (59%), Spain (54%) and Germany (51%) favor the reintroduction of border controls in the Schengen zone, while citizens of Britain, a country not even in Schengen, are the most in favor (74%) of increased controls on the Continent. Only in Poland do more people oppose reintroducing border controls than support it. Among those in favor, the need to control immigration and improve security are the reasons most frequently cited.
The task facing national politicians and EU policy makers is a difficult one. The support for reintroducing border controls implies that membership in Schengen is now seen by most European citizens as a vulnerability rather than an opportunity. Remaining sensitive to these concerns will be important for politicians who are conscious of the need to keep the extreme right marginalized. EU policy makers, on the other hand, will see it as their responsibility to act as a brake on knee-jerk unilateralism.
But the EU needs to hold fast in its defense of Schengen. To give ground would not really deal with the real problem—the porous nature of a small portion of the external border. It would also threaten the free movement of people, trade and money that European economies need now more than ever.
Bobby Duffy is managing director at Ipsos MORI. This article was written for the Wall Street Journal under the title Europe's Anti-Immigrant Voters.