The migration crisis that began in 2015 prompted a debate over whether the EU’s institutions or national governments should take the lead in managing the crisis. But how do citizens’ attitudes toward immigration affect their views on transferring powers to Brussels to deal with the issue? Drawing on a new study, Nicolò Conti, Danilo Di Mauro and Vincenzo Memoli demonstrate that contrary to expectations, those citizens who express negative attitudes about immigration may be among the most willing to see greater powers delegated to the EU level.

The migration crisis of the past few years has made immigration a more salient issue across European states. The connection often made between crime, terrorism and immigration has contributed to the spread of a moral panic within society and to bringing the immigration issue to the top of the agenda. According to Eurobarometer data, since 2015, immigration has been seen by European citizens as one of the most important issues facing the EU.

This crisis and its political repercussions have been felt with different intensity across Europe. In such a critical situation, EU-level coordination has proved problematic due to the nested interests of the member states. The EU institutions remain, however, a fundamental part of the multilevel governance system operating in Europe. Different levels are responsible for addressing different policy problems, some of which are, by definition, more transnational and require coordination at the European level. EU citizens have become accustomed (and reactive) to EU intervention and they recognise that EU institutions are authorities created (and often criticised for failure) to guarantee policy outcomes addressing societal needs on a European scale.

In a recent study, we sought to understand levels of public support for an integrated immigration policy at the EU level. Notably, we were interested in understanding if, how and why citizens would be ready to support greater EU coordination in this policy field. Our analysis benefited from the availability of original data from the EUENGAGE survey of public opinion in ten member states that was specifically designed to test people’s reactions to the most urgent challenges facing the EU.

Our findings indicate that those who are more frightened by immigrants and who demand stricter policy and greater protection from unwanted migration are keener to delegate policy competence to the EU in this field instead of taking on the burden at the national level. Hence, somewhat astonishingly, public support for EU policy competence in immigration should not be sought from those segments of society that believe immigrants generate more benefits than costs. Rather it should be sought from those sectors that display more negative attitudes and feel more threatened by immigrants.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, meeting with staff from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), Credit: Dimitris Avramopoulos (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Our findings therefore offer evidence that attitudes towards immigration have an opposite effect on support for EU policy integration: subjects who feel more threatened by immigration are potential supporters of EU intervention in this field. Within the emergency context of the refugee crisis, and probably as result of the media and political discourse filtering immigration through the lens of crime and terrorism, we found a particularly strong effect of perceived threats linked to immigration: when their sense of insecurity increases, people support greater EU integration in immigration policy. Beyond demands of securitisation, we also found that higher unemployment and refugee rates in one’s own country are positively related to support for EU integration of immigration policy, while higher GDP growth shows the opposite relation.

Ultimately, threat perception of immigration and a sense of insecurity among citizens have created a stronger demand for EU initiatives. Given the scope of the migration challenge, the ability of the state to handle immigration pressure might not garner sufficient trust; hence, it might be considered rational to ask for European intervention. Within a European context not particularly well disposed to immigration, we found it remarkable and, to some extent, disturbing, to find that those who are keener to delegate policy competence to the EU are those very subjects who are more frightened by immigration and who demand stricter policy and greater protection from unwanted migration.

From a theoretical point of view, our findings rejuvenate classical theory on European integration, in which Europe is seen as a rescuer of nation states unable to handle urgent transnational problems effectively, especially when these problems are perceived as being unsolved and constituting a threat. It is an image of the EU as a “shield” capable of protecting the member states from global threats. We find it interesting that such a throwback to the original mission of the EU was forwarded (by some segments of society) in such troubled times, when Eurosceptic parties have become more prominent, EU institutions and policies have become more and more divisive within society, and UK citizens have voted to leave the Union. In the face of such major challenges, will the EU be able to capitalise on the demands of EU intervention rising from society and reunite citizens under a common shield?

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying study in European Union Politics

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Nicolò Conti – Unitelma Sapienza University of Rome
Nicolò Conti is a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Law and Economics at Unitelma Sapienza University of Rome.

Danilo Di Mauro – University of Catania
Danilo Di Mauro is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Catania.

Vincenzo Memoli – University of Catania
Vincenzo Memoli is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Catania.

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