Ireland, Spain and Greece see biggest change in attitudes to immigrants

Opinion: Nigel Farage predictions push immigration up European Parliament election agenda

‘According to Nigel Farage (above), about three-quarters of British people have “genuine and reasonable concerns” about immigration, which are being ignored by the major political parties.’  Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

‘According to Nigel Farage (above), about three-quarters of British people have “genuine and reasonable concerns” about immigration, which are being ignored by the major political parties.’ Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images


According to a new study of 12 European countries from the University of Limerick, Ireland, Spain and Greece have experienced the most significant negative changes in attitudes towards immigrants between 2002 and 2010. This comes at a time when Nigel Farage’s recent statement that UKIP will win the largest number of British seats at the European Parliament elections in May has brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of the election campaign. According to Farage, about three-quarters of British people have “genuine and reasonable concerns” about immigration, which are being ignored by the major political parties. Such concerns show the need for an open debate about European attitudes towards immigrants in the 21st century, based on systematic rather than anecdotal evidence.

The Irish situation is interesting in terms of attitudes, as we are somewhat different from our European neighbours. For most of the 20th century we were essentially a country of outward migration. That changed in 2004 when Ireland decided not to restrict immigration flows from the EU accession states. Hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans arrived in Ireland to live and work at the height of the economic boom. There were over half a million non-Irish nationals living in Ireland in 2011, which was almost double the number in 2002. When the recession hit, many returned home. However, immigrants are still arriving into Ireland, despite the high unemployment level. Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that just over 40,000 non-Irish people moved to Ireland between April 2012 and April 2013.

Our attitudes towards immigrants are therefore an area of concern, as across Europe, surveys have indicated that the trend in attitudes towards immigrants is far from positive. In the late 1980s a Eurobarometer survey indicated that
30 per cent of European respondents believed there were too many “foreigners” in their country; 10 years later this figure had increased by 11 per cent. Whether in response or not to this change, it appears that throughout the EU, policy towards immigrants from outside Europe is becoming more restrictive and protectionist. In recent years there has been growing electoral support for anti-immigration political parties in a number of countries. Anti-immigrant sentiment has taken the form of violent protests and riots in countries such as France and there has been a notable rise in support for far-right political parties in Europe.

Using data from the European Social Survey (ESS) we compared attitudes towards immigrants across 12 European countries at three critical moments in time – prior to large immigration flows in 2004; at the height of the economic cycle in 2006; and after the financial crash in 2010. These are three significant dates as they allow us to compare attitudes prior to the entry of the new EU 10 accession states; at the high point of the economic boom; and after the global financial crash.

Attitudes to immigrants in terms of allowing entry to European countries appear to have changed little between 2002 and 2010, despite the economic recession experienced in that time frame. Yet, this apparent stability masks considerable adjustments in attitudes to immigrants in particular countries. Sweden was the most positive country towards allowing in immigrants, with the UK, Portugal and Greece the most negative. Ireland, with Greece, experienced the largest decrease in positive attitudes to allowing immigrants into their countries during that time. Alongside this change, Ireland had the highest proportion of respondents (49 per cent) who believed immigrants were “good” for the economy in 2006. However, this dropped by more than half, to 23 per cent by 2010, which was below the average for the 12 European countries (25 per cent). The number of people who believed immigrants are “bad” for the economy also increased by 10 per cent in the 12 countries, between 2002 and 2010. In Ireland, the percentage of respondents with negative attitudes more than doubled from 16 per cent in 2006 to 38 per cent in 2010.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding from the study is the sizeable gap between the ratio of people in Sweden willing to allow many immigrants into their country, compared to the numbers in other countries. Sweden, with the sixth highest unemployment rate in 2010, consistently registered the most positive attitudes to immigrants among the 12 countries. What is puzzling is that Sweden, who along with Ireland allowed ease of entry to residents from the accession states, yet, there is a significant difference in attitudes between the two nations. It may be that the severity of the economic crisis and rapid rise in unemployment in Ireland provided a shock effect on attitudes to immigrants. In addition, it may be that Ireland’s relatively short history of sizeable inward immigration has yet to cope with the adjustment required by downturns in the economic cycle in a multi-ethnic society.

Short-term future
Clearly, other cultural, historical and political influences besides economic factors act to form and inform attitudes towards the impact of immigrants. Given the depth of the recession being experienced across Europe and the projected need for immigrant labour into the short- term future, attitudes are of significant concern for all those involved in migrant policy formulation. The determinants of social attitudes should be an important consideration for governments in the development of successful policies aimed at the social and economic integration of immigrants, something that is critical to the development of the EU.

Now is the time for this issue to be scrutinised by our politicians, as the changing demographic profile of the EU is likely to be the focus of the upcoming European Parliament election campaign.

The countries within the European Union used for comparative purposes in the UL studdy are the European Union member states before the recent accessions. The 12 countries analysed are: Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland, UK, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, France, Portugal and Sweden. A total of on average 24,000 responses were returned from these 12 countries for each round (2002, 2006, 2010).

Dr Christine Cross and Dr Thomas Turner are lecturers in the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick

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