By Max Hänska
As David Cameron attempt to be more royalist than the king, ratcheting up his eurosceptic and anti-immigration rhetoric in an attempt to outgun Nigel Farage, it is obvious that public discourse and popular sentiment are turning sour on migration and membership of the European Union. But what explains the ascent of immigration and the EU as the foremost concerns of the British public?
Assuming - and it is of course a highly problematic assumption – that people are well informed and rational, in the sense that their beliefs are reasonably truth-tracking, we would expect concern over immigration and the EU to correlate with some kind of objective increase in immigration-related problems, and the EU to hamper Britain in addressing these and other problems in any serious way. We would expect foreign workers to displace equally qualified domestic workers, available housing supply to be soaked up by foreigners, and public services to be strained under the increased demand brought about by immigration. We would expect the EU to be obstinate in the face of these problems. In other words, we would expect the echo chamber of concerns over immigration and the EU to be a direct result of increased immigration, its deleterious effects and the inability/unwillingness of the EU to address these and other problems.
However, public concerns over immigration and the EU do not seem to track the facts, as concerns over immigration are fairly stable and not responsive to changes in net migration. Moreover, those most concerned about immigration are often least exposed to it. By most estimates immigration is cost-neutral, and immigrants are in more likely to be net-contributors than net-beneficiaries. In short, people’s increased concern with immigration is not explained by actual increases in the number of immigrants, nor by the real cost of immigration, or by increased exposure to immigrants.