Immigration has been the hot-button issue on campaign trails across the western world over the past year, feeding a surge in support for populist parties and politicians such as UKIP in Britain, Front National in France and Donald Trump in the United States.
So perhaps it’s not surprising to find that immigrants have a bad reputation in several countries in continental Europe. Most people in France, Germany and Scandinavia believe that immigration makes a negative contribution to their country, according to a new quarterly survey by the online polling firm YouGov conducted for Handelsblatt Global.
Asked on a scale of 0 to 10 to rate whether immigration makes a positive or negative contribution to their country, the average answers in the survey ranged from 5 in Britain and the United States to 7 in France. Germany and the Scandinavian countries polled – Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland – fell in the middle at 6.
Germany wants fewer refugees from the Middle East, but supports free movement and open borders within the European Union.
The views are more mixed when it comes to movement of E.U. citizens within the bloc. While the poll found broad skepticism about the E.U. as a whole, many Europeans still support allowing people to live and work across the E.U., even if they seem to have a more skeptical view of immigrants coming from outside the 28-nation bloc.
But there are some contradictions among voters’ views, which highlight just what a confounding issue immigration has become for politicians in Europe over the past year.
Britain and France, for example, aren’t too unhappy with the number of asylum seekers arriving from the Middle East, but they oppose open borders within the European Union. Germany wants fewer refugees from the Middle East, but supports free movement and open borders within the European Union.
Immigration, of course, was seen as a key reason why many in Britain voted to leave the European Union in the surprise referendum result last June. It’s also the issue that has led many to expect France’s far-right National Front to have a strong showing in presidential elections set for this spring.
In Germany, the influx of more than one million refugees has given rise to support for the Alternative for Germany party, which is expected to enter the country's parliament in fall elections.
And yet France in particular has a rather conflicting approach to immigration after negative headlines stemming from terrorist attacks that struck Paris and Nice last year. While most French people view immigration's contribution as negative, the survey also found a majority of 53 percent believe their country is accepting “about the right number” of refugees from the Middle East. Only 22 percent said they wanted fewer migrants, while 14 percent said France should take in more.
The situation is reversed in Germany, which has taken in more than 1 million asylum seekers over the past two years. The survey found 47 percent said the country should take in fewer refugees, while only 35 percent believe Europe’s largest economy has taken the right amount.
France and Britain also have mixed feelings when it comes to internal E.U. migration. The survey found 46 percent of Brits and 55 percent of French people said it was a “good thing” that E.U. citizens have the right to live and work in other E.U. countries. On the flip side, 54 percent of Brits and 50 percent of French believe it’s a “bad thing” to have open borders between the member states. The fact that even France is so opposed to open borders suggests E.U. policymakers may have a hard time keeping the Schengen open-border area alive in the coming years.
Germany, by contrast, remains more supportive of E.U. migration across the board: 66 percent of those polled support the right to live and work across the union, while 47 percent support open E.U. borders.
But there is one thing all three countries can agree on: Immigration is going to remain a key election issue in the coming year.
Asked to name the two most important issues facing the country, the level of immigration topped the list in France and Germany with 31 percent and 41 percent respectively. The threat of terrorism came a close second – a major concern for 29 percent of French and 34 percent of Germans.
Even in Britain, 30 percent see immigration as one of the nation’s top two problems. The only problem more important? Britain’s relationship with the European Union. That topped the list at 36 percent.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]