Europeans Are More Accepting of Immigrants Today Than 15 Years Ago

Brochure ESS Policy brief

A new policy brief by Esther Ademmer and Tobias Stöhr examines how Europeans view the impact of immigration on their countries, especially in the aftermath of the refugee crisis. At a time, when Europe’s asylum and migration policy continues to cause political conflict and create divisions within and across political parties in EU member states, the researchers find that most European voters are actually not critical of immigration per se, and might even welcome legal migrant labour from outside the EU.

Europeans have become more accepting of migrants since 2002…

Based on the European Social Survey (ESS) which measures attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns of Europe’s diverse populations since 2001, Ademmer and Stöhr analysed eight waves of the ESS, including the most recent data covering attitudes after the 2015 refugee crisis. The ESS asks Europeans regularly how they judge the impact of immigration on their country in general, on its cultural life, and whether they consider immigration to be good or bad for the national economy. The data suggest that when asked about the impact of immigration—irrespective of its different types (e.g. EU- or non-EU migrants) and channels—on their country, the economy and their culture, people across Europe have on average evaluated immigration in more positive terms since 2002-03. This trend has not been reversed in the aftermath of the refugee crisis.

…but polarization increases within states

On average, there is also no large variation between European countries on these issues. However, while public opinion varies little across the EU countries analysed, public opinion within member states has become more polarized. This change is evident when comparing the survey responses within Germany and Hungary. While the largest group of respondents always found that immigrants neither make a country a better or worse place in which to live, this group has become smaller in both Germany and Hungary, suggesting that more people express a rather positive or negative—as opposed to neutral—opinion about immigration in 2016–2017.

Yet despite the rise of a vocal anti-immigrant party in Germany in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis, respondents’ views have not changed dramatically even when comparing the two surveys from 2014–2015 and 2016–2017. In Hungary, by contrast, the growth in the number of people who view migration as very detrimental to the country is substantial.

Room for maneuver

Overall the data shows that Europeans have not become increasingly negative when asked about immigration in general—without differentiating between different types and channels of immigration. On the contrary, the responses indicate that public opinion has become more, rather than less accepting of immigration since 2002–2003.

„Isolationist and anti-immigration tendencies might have grown, but do not represent the full breadth of public opinion”, so Esther Ademmer. “Instead, the ESS data strongly suggest that a significant number of citizens would support migration policies that are not purely aimed at restricting inflows of migrants, and that the stratification of public opinion would give policy-makers substantial room for maneuver to find common European policies and to deal effectively with the recent crisis.”

Read the full MEDAM Policy Brief:
Europeans are more accepting of immigrants today than 15 years ago—Evidence from eight waves of the European Social Survey