The EU has pursued common policies on immigration and the prevention of terrorism. But what determines public support for this form of cooperation? As Cengiz Erisen and Sofia Vasilopoulou explain, factors such as an individual’s identity, employment status and level of education have previously been used to understand varying levels of support among citizens. However, drawing on a new study, they highlight the important role that emotional reactions about immigration also have in shaping public support for EU cooperation.

The influx of more than 1.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and migrants into Europe, especially since the war in Syria, has coincided with immigration and terrorism becoming the two most important issues for European Union (EU) citizens, replacing economics.

The European immigration crisis has attracted significant attention for at least two reasons. First, host-country nationals may perceive this new flow of people as a potential threat to their existing social and demographic fabric. Second, the origin and religion of the majority of refugees has allowed far right political actors not only to politicise identity, religious and value-based differences in their campaigns, but also to link immigration to terrorism.

To address immigration and security-related challenges, European governments are faced with two options. The first possibility is to address these issues domestically. Some EU member states, such as Italy, Hungary and Poland, have taken unilateral actions against the EU’s official line. The second option is to deal with these issues through cooperation at the EU level, which might allow member states to share the burden of immigration, protect refugees and collectively fight terrorism. The challenge here is to build a strong multilateral framework while at the same time ensuring public approval of all these initiatives.

Our work examines the nature and scope of public approval of a common EU immigration policy and a common EU counter-terrorism strategy. In a recent study, we show that emotional reactions triggered by immigration influence the extent to which citizens prefer domestic over international solutions to the dual questions of immigration and terrorism.

Emotional responses to immigration

The question of immigration is likely to trigger different emotional responses across the public. Immigration is a transnational and controversial issue. It is related to multiple policy issues including the economy, cultural integration, criteria of entitlement and demographic change. Some members of the public may respond to immigration with enthusiasm. These individuals tend to view immigration as a way of enriching the national culture and bringing vital skills and human capital to the host country.

Others may perceive immigration as a threat. Such conscious or preconscious appraisals of migration may elicit anger and fear. Anger will be triggered when immigration is interpreted as a normative violation, such as viewing immigrants as a threat to the existing social and moral order. This emotional state is less related to the actual dangers and risks arising from immigration. Rather, immigration is perceived as an unfair disruption to a person’s desired condition. Fear, on the other hand, will be activated when immigration is perceived as something new with unpredictable consequences. Uncertainty is more likely to trigger fearful reactions, turning individuals to breaking from their cognitive habitual routines and engaging in information-seeking.

Emotions and support for EU cooperation

To examine the emotional underpinnings of support for EU level cooperation on immigration and terrorism, we used evidence from two online surveys conducted in Germany and the Netherlands in 2015-2016. Specifically, we asked:

  1. ‘How much do you support the creation of a common EU immigration policy?’ on a scale ranging from Strongly Oppose (1) to Strongly Support (5); and
  2. ‘Do you support the creation of a common counter-terrorism strategy?’ on a scale ranging from Strongly Oppose (1) to Strongly Support (5).

Our work shows that distinct emotional reactions to immigration have divergent effects on people’s preferences. In general, anger makes us want to remove threats through risky and often confrontational strategies whereas fear makes us vigilant, risk-averse and cautious. When applied to EU cooperation in the fields of immigration and terrorism, citizens angry about immigration are more likely to oppose EU level cooperation on both immigration and terrorism, essentially preferring that these policies are exclusively managed at the nation-state level. Anxious individuals, on the other hand, will tend to support EU decision-making in the field of terrorism. Unlike angry individuals, they are likely to view international cooperation as an additional shield vis-à-vis terrorist threats, especially given that EU cooperation on terrorism does not negate domestic policy in this sphere.

As figure 1 shows, anger felt as a result of immigration significantly decreases the probability to support a common EU immigration policy. For these individuals a solution is only possible at the national level and not beyond. Enthusiasm about immigration, on the other hand, promotes a collective policy response to immigration.

Figure 1: Enthusiasm and anger about immigration and support for EU immigration policy

Note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

Figure 2 shows the key contrast between anxious and angry individuals. Anger decreases the propensity to support a common EU counter-terrorism strategy whereas anxiety increases it.

Figure 2: Anger and anxiety about immigration and support for a common EU counter-terrorism strategy

Note: For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

Anger about immigration increases reliance on domestic rather than supranational decision-making authorities on this specific policy question. For angry individuals who seek to fully eliminate the immigrant threat, state unilateral action is a confident and habitual response. Anxious citizens, on the other hand, have a heighted perception of risk, which is more likely to be alleviated through cooperation. Besides, a cautious approach of EU cooperation on terrorism does not rule out domestic control.

What are the implications of our findings?

We have shown that it is not only identity or economics that influence how people view cooperation at the EU level. We know that individuals with high levels of human capital (education and skills) tend to support immigration and international cooperation. In addition, such individuals tend to have more cosmopolitan views of how society should be organised which also leads them to back multiannual institutions. Our work provides an important caveat to this – the extent to which individuals will or will not support a policy at the EU level does not only reflect a careful cost-benefit analysis of the situation, there are complicated psychological processes that should also be taken into consideration.

In addition, our findings have implications for the Europeanisation of other policy areas related to terrorism, such as crime prevention and control. With the Lisbon Treaty entering into force, the EU can influence national policies and projects regarding crime prevention. However, the question about whether the public is supportive of the EU intervening in crime matters remains open. We demonstrate that emotions can have a substantial impact on how EU citizens may react to the EU’s new roles.

More broadly, emotions are ubiquitous, most especially on politically loaded subjects. These emotions directly influence citizen attitudes and political judgments. Politicians, policy-makers and administrative representatives may also need to account for these factors when dealing with their tasks. This is especially the case in an era when extremist and exclusionary rhetoric has gained significant electoral traction.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

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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

Cengiz Erisen – Yeditepe University
Cengiz Erisen is Professor of Political Science at Yeditepe University, Turkey.

Sofia Vasilopoulou – University of York
Sofia Vasilopoulou is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York.

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