Mar 19 2018

Immigration, Welfare Chauvinism and the Support for Radical Right Parties in Europe

By Luis Cornago Bonal and Delia Zollinger

Over a decade ago, Alesina and Glaeser (2004) argued that support for welfare policies in Europe will decrease as European countries become more ethnically diverse, primarily due to the difficulties of maintaining solidarity among different ethnic groups. However, the reality is still unclear, particularly the extent to which the increase in immigration-generated ethnic diversity challenges the political sustainability of the welfare state in Europe. Furthermore, although a rise in immigration does not necessarily reduce support for the welfare state in general, it can lead to a more restrictive and dualistic, so-called “welfare chauvinistic” type of welfare state where immigrants are less entitled to certain welfare programs than natives. The success of radical right parties (RRP) mobilizing the working class with nativist appeals, along with the consequent pressure on these parties to position themselves in terms of welfare and labour market policy, seem to partially explain the increasing relevance of welfare chauvinism.

Ethnic Heterogeneity and Public Support the for Welfare State

Underlying the idea of ethnic heterogeneity eroding support for the welfare state is the notion that it is difficult to develop feelings of trust and national solidarity across different ethnic groups, which “leads to a decrease in welfare state support because people do not want to redistribute resources to people they do not trust and with whom they do not identify” (Banting and Kymlicka, 2006, p. 18). Since the publication of Alesina and Glaeser’s (2004) seminal book, an expanding body of research on immigration and European welfare attitudes has produced mixed findings. While single-country studies in Sweden (Eger, 2010) and Germany (Spies and Schmidt-Catran, 2016) have demonstrated a negative relationship between regional variation in immigration and welfare attitudes, cross-national analyses have shown a less clear relationship (Brady and Finnigan, 2014). Recent studies (Eger and Breznau, 2017) suggest that once immigration is measured at the regional level, the negative impact of immigration on support for redistribution and a comprehensive welfare state can be observed.

On the contrary, other studies have showed that an increase in immigration can enhance support for welfare policies, or what is known as the “compensation hypothesis”. According to this theory, some sectors of the population –especially those more disadvantaged– will perceive a higher risk of decrease in their incomes from the arrival of foreign-born population in the labor market. Therefore, instead of opposing social policies, they would support them even more in order to overcome those potential income losses (Finseraas, 2008). Interestingly, Burgoon et al. (2012) find that support for redistribution is much higher among those individuals with occupations that attract a larger number of immigrants, whereas national-level immigration does not have any effect on support for government redistribution.

In many of these accounts, the fact that they do not attribute any relevance to the attitudes towards immigration is striking. If, for instance, someone has a favourable view of immigration (even in a very ethnically diverse country or region) for cultural and economic reasons, it is hard to see how the presence of immigrants can reduce his or her support for the welfare state. Additionally, because the welfare state is a multidimensional concept, the research in this area would greatly benefit from studying the impact of immigration on support for specific welfare policies, such as unemployment benefits or health care, rather than considering overall support for redistribution in the sense of more versus less welfare spending. One possibility is that an increase in immigration in a region only negatively affects support for those welfare programs that are perceived to be used mainly by immigrants (Fox, 2012).

Welfare Regime Type and the Rise of Welfare Chauvinism

Some prominent authors in the welfare state literature have traditionally argued that different welfare regimes, according to the Esping-Andersen typology, can have an impact on the kind of preferences towards the welfare state that people hold in different countries (Svallfors, 1997; Larsen, 2008). The social democratic type of welfare regime would generate the highest support, and the liberal or Anglo-Saxon type the lowest. Perhaps more interestingly, the type of welfare state regime may also help to explain why welfare chauvinism is more likely to arise in some countries than in others. For instance, some studies argue that universal regimes tend to reduce the level of welfare chauvinism of natives, while means-tested welfare regimes and programs are more likely to lead to ethnic conflict over welfare (Andersen, 2006; Crepaz, 2008). In a similar vein, Crepaz and Damron (2009) affirm that “the effect of targeted welfare delivery systems is one of separation, stratification, and difference” (p. 446).

However, the opposite can also be argued. In a citizenship-based type of welfare regime, as is typical of Scandinavia, the foreign-born population is, at least formally, eligible to receive welfare benefits once they acquire, for instance, the Swedish nationality. However, in an occupation-based type of welfare regime – such as Spain or Germany – access to certain welfare programs, such as unemployment benefits, hinges on eligibility conditions based on a minimum period of contribution and provides benefits proportional to past contributions (Fernández-Albertos and Dulce Manzano, 2016). In this type of welfare regime, immigrants are entitled to gain access only insofar as they have also contributed themselves.

Having this reasoning in mind, it seems plausible that the perceived competition with immigrants for welfare benefits or resources may be higher in the citizenship-based type of welfare regime than in the occupation-based model. Moreover, as Fernández-Albertos suggested here, in those welfare programs where it is more obvious that the state is making transfers from one sector of the population to another, such as housing or cash benefits, the welfare state of, say, Spain is very weak compared to other countries in Northern Europe where welfare chauvinism seems to be more wide-spread.

A similar logic could also be useful to hypothesize why RRP are especially prominent today in countries like Norway, Sweden or Denmark and not in Spain or Portugal, although this is an ongoing and complex debate (Alonso and Rovira, 2015; Hobolt and Tilley, 2016; Vidal, 2018). For instance, the fact that in Spain recently arrived immigrants do not have access to many welfare programs because they have not yet contributed to the social security system may lessen the emergence of welfare chauvinistic attitudes and, ultimately, the success of a radical right party.

Radical Right Parties (RRP) and Welfare Chauvinism

RRP in Europe have in many cases moved from neoliberal positions in economic policy to a more pro-welfare stance and protectionist agenda (Schumacher and van Kebergsen, 2016; Afonso and Rennwald, 2016), with welfare chauvinism a key part of their programs.  One clear example is the Front National in France, and parties such as the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Freedom Party in Austria. How and why has welfare chauvnism come to form part of these parties’ profiles?

Afonso and Rennwald (2016) argue that RRP –which have mobilized voters primarily on the universalism-particularism rather than the traditional economic dimension of political competition– have had an increasingly difficult time avoiding positioning themselves clearly in terms of economic policy. Forming part of governing coalitions, incentives to “normalize” and pursue more catch-all strategies, and the increasing salience of economic issues in the Great Recession have put pressure RRP to take a stance on social policy. This is exacerbated by working-class realignment, that is, shifts in support of this class from social democratic parties to RRP. Where the working class forms an important part of their electorate, RRP have an incentive to accommodate the economic preferences of these voters. Indeed, the authors find a general trend among RRP (with some exceptions) towards a more supportive stance for welfare spending. This development relating to the traditional economic dimension is also of consequence for the formerly purely “cultural” universalism-particularism dimension. Here, welfare chauvinism plays a key role. This second dimension –which is crucial for distinguishing who votes for RRP– has come to incorporate “not only the issue of immigration, EU integration and cultural liberalism, but also questions of welfare chauvnism and welfare misuse” (Häusermann and Kriesi, 2015, p. 25). In terms of welfare chauvinism and deservingness, voters’ attitudes towards welfare policies depend not only on their position regarding the state-market dimension, but also on their universalistic versus particularistic attitudes. Where the support base of RRP is predominantly working class, endorsing welfare chauvinism presents a logical strategy for these parties.

Therefore, it is necessary to bring party politics into the study of welfare chauvinism. From a demand-side perspective, voters’ preferences may partly explain the emergence of RRP. However, it is also conceivable that these parties have the ability to influence public opinion towards greater welfare chauvinism beyond their support base. The European Social Survey includes the question “when should immigrants obtain rights to social benefits/services?” As shown in Figure 1, in Denmark and the Netherlands, where relatively strong RRP exist, a high percentage of the population wants immigrants to obtain access to social benefits once they become citizens (the second most restrictive option). However, around 14 per cent of Danish people (a high number compared to other countries) agree that immigrants should be entitled to benefits immediately after arrival (the least restrictive option).

Figure 1

A preliminary look at such simple descriptive statistics suggests that parties’ impact on aggregate public opinion towards immigrants’ welfare entitlements is not immediately clear. However, Andersen (2007), using a more specific survey question, suggests that welfare chauvnism has been on the rise among Danish citizens since the Danish People’s Party started influencing the policy agenda in 2001. In fact, in Denmark the “length-of-stay” principle for welfare eligibility has been implemented and has excluded de facto some foreign-born immigrants from welfare entitlements (de Koster, et al. 2013). Moreover, as shown in figures 2 and 3, in Spain, even though there is not a RRP, welfare chauvinism is relatively widespread in public opinion for certain policies (although it decreased slightly in the last years). Therefore, these ideas can also emerge without a party carrying the banner for them. In other words, RPPs may not be a necessary condition for welfare chauvinism.

Figure 2

Figure 3


Finally, Oesch and Rennwald (2017) look at how the different occupational segments of the electorate have evolved from 2002 to 2014 in various European countries. Interestingly, they find that not all occupational segments are disputed bastions. For instance, sociocultural professionals (such as medical doctors, teachers or social workers) vote, by majority, for left-wing parties, whereas large employers and managers tend to remain loyal to the centre-right. However, RRP have increasingly challenged both the centre-right by competing for the votes of “small business owners” and the left by competing for the support of the traditional working-class. According to the evidence shown by Oesch and Rennwald, the universalism-particularism dimension is the main factor explaining the support for RRP by production workers (such as mechanics, carpenters and assemblers) and small business owners. Furthermore, as shown below, in the universalism-particularism dimension (vertical axis) radical right voters take a significantly more traditionalist position than in the economic one (horizontal axis), where these voters are more likely to place themselves between the left and the centre-right.

Figure 4 (from Oesch and Rennwald, 2017)

In conclusion, it cannot be affirmed that the immigration-driven increase in ethnic diversity has undermined political support for the welfare state in Europe. Previous work has produced mixed findings. This is not surprising given the multidimensional nature of welfare politics and the apparent relevance of both the state-market and universalism-particularism dimensions for social policy-making. The rise of the immigrant population in most European countries –where this gives rise to politically articulated welfare chauvinism– is relevant for the future development of the welfare state in terms of specific policy design in times of financial austerity. RRP have an incentive to take a restrictive, welfare chauvinistic approach to the welfare state as the share of working class voters in their electorate increases, particularly in the context of the Great Recession. The politicization and increasing relevance of issues such as welfare chauvinism suggest that, in addition to the traditional state-market dimension, the identity based universalism-particularism dimension has become relevant for economic policies regarding welfare and labour market regulation. Preference formation regarding welfare deservingness seems to follow a different logic than preferences for more versus less redistribution (Häusermann and Kriesi, 2015). Taking this into account will allow for more differentiated assessments of how ethnic diversity affects welfare policy making.

(Thanks to Enrique Chueca for helping with the graphs).

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Luis Cornago Bonal (@luiscornagob) holds a dual bachelor in Political Science and Sociology from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and is pursuing a master’s degree in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He has been the recipient of the ‘la Caixa’ scholarship (2017) to carry out postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom.

Delia Zollinger is currently completing an MSc in Comparative Politics at LSE. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with minors in Law and Arabic from the University of Zurich.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

EU migration opens a whole Brexit can of worms

EU Migrant Workers’ Welfare Rights: the New Fair Game


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