One of the presumptions of democracy is that leaders listen to the public. But as poll after poll in Europe shows, this presumption breaks down around the subject of migration. On that — and the numerous issues surrounding it — mainstream politicians consistently ignore the public. And not only ignore them but berate them and act against their concerns.
This month sees the publication of the latest poll by Project 28, whose 2017 poll of public opinion I wrote about here last summer. Once again, the Századvég Foundation has polled opinion from 1,000 respondents in each of the 28 countries of the EU. And once again, the findings are startling. Any politician should consider them; a wise politician would listen to them.
What is most striking once again is that there is such extraordinary unanimity around the question of immigration. While numerous political divides exist within each of the 28 member states, and considerable differences exist between them, only on the matters of migration, borders and security can this not be said.
For instance, in response to the question of EU border protection, more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of EU citizens believe that the external borders of Europe should be better protected. This number rises to nine in ten in central and eastern European countries, including Hungary and Slovakia (these being among the countries that have most opposed the open-borders policies propagated by Berlin and Brussels in 2015). But anyone wishing to dismiss this as a solely Visegrad concern will be disappointed. Not only do 78 per cent of all Europeans think that illegal immigration into their countries is a problem, in every single European country more people think that it is a serious problem than think it is not a problem or not a very serious problem.
Whether their politicians allow them to make the connection or not, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and other cities the public also recognise the connection between terrorism and open borders. Asked whether immigration brings problems including crime and terrorism, the majority of Europeans believe that it does. While 82 per cent think it is very or somewhat likely that a terrorist attack could happen in their country, 62 per cent also think that immigrants bring an increase in crime. Of course this remains a subject which, if uttered by a mainstream politician, could end their political career. And yet it is not only a majority opinion, but provable. Research commissioned by the German government and published in January found that there had been a large increase in crime in Germany in recent years and that more than 90 per cent of that crime could be attributed to young male migrants. How strange it is that something should be a majority public opinion, and a provable opinion at that, and still remain politically unsayable.
One of the most sensitive issues to emerge has been that of migrant quotas. Across the continent since the 2015 surge, the EU has been attempting to make each member state pay for a decision which was unilaterally decided upon by the German government. Whether every other member state should help ameliorate Angela Merkel’s mistake is a heated issue — and not only in eastern Europe. At the height of the 2015 crisis, the British government refused to accept any migrant quotas enforced from Berlin or Brussels. But for the remaining member states this remains a potentially crunch issue.
The proportion of EU citizens who approve of an EU quota plan has fallen from 53 per cent in 2016 to 47 per cent this year. So quotas are even more unpopular now than they were two years ago. Naturally the idea of quotas is most popular in Germany (which has most to gain by dispersing its migrants around the rest of Europe), with 67 per cent of respondents approving of quotas. Greece, which has also been on the front line of the issue and borne much of the resulting burden, also has a majority of the public (69 per cent) approving of quotas. Elsewhere, the public are critical of the scheme. And if there is a reason then it must in no small part be due to the fact that there is no evidence that Brussels or Berlin have learned any lessons from the mistakes of that year.
Despite often outrageous claims to the contrary, this is not to say that Europeans are hostile to those legitimately fleeing war or conflict. Far from it. But what the Project 28 figures once again show is that most people want Europe to respond (as Britain does) by helping people in the region they are fleeing rather than encouraging them to come to Europe.
Fully 81 per cent of the European public agree that immigrants should be helped in their own countries, with almost half (48 per cent) saying that the EU should provide ‘substantial financial support’ to the countries where they are currently residing, like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The public are also supportive of temporary migration, with two-thirds of Europeans agreeing that immigrants should be sent back to their home countries after the war in Syria ends.
The opposite view is everywhere a minority. Just 14 per cent of the European public believe that the EU should accept a million asylum seekers a year and only 9 per cent of the European public think that immigrants should be accepted without any limitations.
Crucially, the public are aware of something about which their politicians have been blithe. Which is that migration on the scale Europe has seen in recent years is not just a problem for this generation but for succeeding ones. A frightening 50 per cent of Europeans believe that their children will have a worse life than them. This view is noticeably higher in countries like Austria, Greece and Germany, which have been at the forefront of the migration crises. Specifically, 70 per cent of the European public believe that the ‘rapid population growth of Muslims’ is either a ‘somewhat serious’ or ‘very serious’ threat to Europe.
What is the answer to these concerns? The most obvious is for politicians to listen to the public and act on what they hear. But three-quarters of a year has passed since I last wrote about a Project 28 poll here. And while the public continue to speak their minds, there is little evidence to show that they are being listened to any more now than they were then.
IN ASSOCIATION WITH