Immigration arouses passion and debate like no other issue. Across Europe, human rights groups, flamboyant populists and tabloid media jostle over every new bit of data or opinion poll. The issue doesn't look set to fall off the political landscape either. With elections fast approaching in France, the US and Germany, candidates on both the left and right are thinking hard about how to connect their campaigns with public anxieties over immigration.
The problem, however, is that these debates are typically characterised by misinformation and prejudice. Too often, surveys and opinion polls ask misleading questions, or are manipulated to meet the demands of particular interest groups. This is why the results of the latest edition of a reliable survey of what ordinary citizens think about this issue are so important. The Transatlantic Trends survey explores public attitudes to immigration across the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. While the picture it paints is complex, it is also detailed and nuanced. For those politicians and policymakers who are seeking to reassure anxious voters about rising ethnic and cultural diversity, it reveals both challenges and opportunities.
First – the challenges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, scepticism toward immigration across Europe remains strong. In fact, across the five European states majorities of citizens consider immigration to be more of a problem than opportunity, and view immigrants as a burden on social services. This suggests that despite significant efforts by western governments to make the case for rising diversity, large numbers of voters remain unconvinced. This is especially true in the UK, where over two-thirds of respondents labelled immigration problematic. In fact, public concern and scepticism about this issue was strongest in the UK. Interestingly, the British are significantly more anxious over this issue than voters in countries that have far more successful anti-immigrant populist parties.
While they are sceptical, an additional challenge stems from the way in which large numbers of citizens in Europe are profoundly dissatisfied with how politicians are managing this issue. Despite extensive legislative action by previous Labour governments and more recent plans by the coalition to curb net migration, three quarters of British voters think the government is performing poorly on this issue. Nor is the UK unique in this respect: seven out of every 10 respondents in Europe are distinctly unimpressed with the performance of their governments. This dissatisfaction is unlikely to subside, as we now live in an era in which the capacity of domestic politicians to influence immigration is greatly diminished. We also live in a political climate in which voters are less influenced by grandiose ideological visions and rely on their own evaluations of how political parties are performing on key issues. Over the long term, politicians will find that resolving this tension between, on the one hand, public concerns over immigration and, on the other, their growing preoccupation with "performance politics" will be one of the toughest challenges.
So what are the opportunities? First, despite their frustrations with politicians, the attitudes of citizens toward immigration have remained broadly stable. While there is some evidence that anti-immigrant sentiment is hardening in the UK, the fact that it has not become more entrenched across Europe is good news, especially given two events: the onset of a global crisis that has sharpened economic insecurities and the prospect of further migration from North Africa following the Arab spring. Second, most citizens continue to overestimate the actual numbers of immigrants. For example, while only 11% of the British population is foreign born, citizens typically estimated the figure to be 32%. Rather than hold our hands up in exasperation, this presents an opportunity to explore better ways of communicating statistics to citizens more clearly.
Third, while there remain clear concerns over the integration of Muslims (53% of respondents in Europe think Muslims are integrating "poorly"), across Europe this figure is lower than previously, which suggests that attempts to bolster integration are working (or are at least perceived to be working). This also extends to the integration of immigrants more generally; today, citizens are more likely than they were last year to think that immigrants are integrating well into society (52% held this view). The figures may be far from convincing, but at least they are moving in the right direction. Lastly, we can also see evidence of an important "generational effect" at work: whereas 40% of citizens in Europe think Muslims are integrating well, when asked about the children of Muslim immigrants the figure jumps to 55%. Similarly, whereas 52% of citizens think immigrants are integrating well, 65% think that the children of immigrants are successfully integrating.
The simple reality is that over the shorter term, governments and civil servants are unlikely to convince large numbers of voters about the benefits of rising diversity, or their capacity to deliver a solid performance on this issue. However, by focusing on the opportunities that are beginning to emerge, over the longer term they may well be able to smooth the transition toward more cohesive communities.