These are difficult times across Europe. From the endless iterations of the eurozone crisis to the Brexit negotiations beginning in earnest — these and many more challenges will face our continent for years to come. But underneath them all, lies a whole set of other ructions: subterranean events which lead to subterranean public concerns and subterranean public discussions.
Foremost among such deep rumblings are the anxieties of the European publics on matters to do with immigration, identity and Islam. These things are closely connected (so closely that I recently put them together in the subtitle of my book, The Strange Death of Europe), but they are unarguably stifled discussions. While politicians talk about immigration solely in terms of the benefits it brings — and clearly it does bring some — the public are understandably concerned that the downsides of migration are not merely ignored but actively covered up.
Some people say that we are ‘not allowed’ to talk about immigration; others, that we seem to always be talking about it. In fact both are true: we constantly have the same shallow conversations about the issues. These conversations do not address or satisfy people’s deep concerns — and at no point has this been clearer than in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, which may be off the front pages but which still continues.
All of this brings a problem of its own — one that has already led to some electoral shocks in recent years. Specifically, this is the widening gap between what the public thinks and what politicians allow themselves to say. One of the surest ways — if not the only way — to measure this gap is through opinion polls, such as the annual survey of EU citizens conducted by Project 28. And the latest found an array of significant facts.
For instance, even now, two years after the height of the migrant crisis, three-quarters of people across the EU think the organisation’s handling of it was ‘poor’. This shows no sign of changing. In 2016, 77 per cent of people thought it; in 2017 the figure is 76 per cent. There is not a single EU country in which the majority of people do not think the EU is doing a poor job (the best score is Malta where only 55 per cent think the EU is performing poorly). Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is in Italy and Greece that public opinion is most critical. There nearly nine out of ten (89 per cent) think the EU is handling the crisis poorly.
It is a stark set of figures. The financial crises of recent years have been serious, but the EU’s reviews from the public on its handling of the economic crises are positive compared to those on migration. Indeed the range of opinion of people thinking the EU has performed badly in its handling of the economic crises stretch from 12 per cent to 81 per cent. Nothing unites European public opinion like its views on migration and its criticism of the EU leadership during this period.
Everywhere opinion is heading down a familiar trajectory. When asked how they rate the job the EU is doing in fighting terrorism and preventing more attacks, 49 per cent of the European public thought the EU was doing a poor job. This year — maybe not unexpectedly given the number of attacks in the past 12 months — that figure has nudged up to over half (51 per cent). Across Europe the majority of the public see an upsurge in migration as leading to an upsurge in terrorism.
The clear lesson that the public takes from this wave of terror attacks is that the external borders of Europe should be more effectively policed. This is the inevitable conclusion to draw from — among others — the November 2015 Paris attacks, where members of the terrorist cell had slipped in and out of Europe and headed to Syria and back, using the migrant routes to disguise themselves. Before those attacks, EU officials had lambasted the public for making any connection between the migration crisis and the terror. Afterwards the politicians were forced to recognise that the public had a point.
This year a whopping 79 per cent of people across the EU agreed with the statement that the EU ‘should protect its outer European borders more effectively’. And there is not much disagreement between traditional political sides. Some 54 per cent of Germans who identify as being on the left agreed with this statement.
Incidentally, the claims of links between NGOs and human traffickers who enable these migrant routes to exist (particularly in Italy and Greece) are also disturbing. Even the EU border agency, Frontex, has accused aid agencies of helping ‘criminals achieve their objectives at minimum cost’.
This could easily accentuate distrust and eventually even lead to other countries divorcing from the EU. One of the most prominent reasons why the British public voted to leave the EU in 2016 was the issue of immigration. As the Project 28 poll shows, only Bulgaria has a higher proportion of its population than Britain in favour of more national sovereignty in the area of immigration. But across the EU most of the public are coming to be in favour of nations having more control over their own borders. The reasons are the same in most countries. Illegal immigration in particular is seen as a problem across most of the EU, although in countries such as the UK there is less concern about illegal immigration among the young (just 34 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds) than among those over 60 (63 per cent). Interestingly, among Britons who identify as left-wing, 71 per cent regard illegal immigration as a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat serious problem’.
In every EU country half or more of the population think that an influx of immigrants will increase crime in their country, although in Germany (where sex attacks by migrants were reported to have doubled in 2016) 34 per cent of people said it was untrue or they didn’t know if there was a link between immigration and crime.
Inevitably, views diverge in different countries depending on those countries’ own experiences of the migrant crisis. For example, support for the EU’s quota plan to distribute migrants around Europe finds most support in Greece (where four-fifths of people agree with the plan) while in the Czech Republic precisely the opposite is true, with four-fifths disagreeing. Overall, however, the majority of EU countries (15 versus 13) oppose the quota system. In some ways the most interesting findings are on the identity issue which politicians across Europe find difficult to address. Asked how serious a threat to Europe they find the rapid growth of Europe’s Muslim communities, the number who say they regard this increase as ‘very serious’ has grown from 36 per cent in 2016 to 41 this year. That ranges from 53 per cent in Sweden to 93 in Bulgaria. As has been the case consistently in recent years, there is greater concern in eastern Europe than in western Europe.
All this reveals two important things. One is that Europeans are united in a sense that the uncontrolled movement of people into their continent, especially illegally, brings significant problems. Another is they disapprove of the way the EU has dealt with these challenges, and are willing to withdraw support from it and bring matters like borders back to a national level of control if the EU does tackle the issue properly. In the long run this is a huge challenge to the stability of the EU and of Europe as a whole. If the gap is going to be bridged at any point it can only be by politicians of the centre ground being willing not just to speak to this gap, but to try to solve it by decent political means.