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What can our views on the EU reveal about our opinions on immigration?

Published 12 May 2015 / By Yvonni Markaki

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Introduction

In this week’s COMPAS Blog I draw on my own research and the European Social Survey to discuss how our evaluations of the impacts of immigration on the UK’s economy, culture, and quality of life relate to our views on European integration and the European Parliament.

International migration to the UK is not a novel political debate. A wide range of opinion polls over the past four decades have consistently shown that immigration tends to be an unpopular political issue.  However, the EU expansions after 2004 have arguably triggered a somewhat different debate about the role of the European Union in the UK’s ability to call the shots on population movement and economic policies. The 2008 economic crisis further generated a great deal of attention to the issue of resource scarcity and the UK’s ability to accommodate a growing immigrant population in the face of cuts to public investment and services.

Most surveys of attitudes towards immigration find that the majority of respondents prefer that immigration to the UK is reduced by a lot, if not at least by a little. In my research, I find that UK-born residents are more likely to favour immigration restrictions if they live in regions with larger shares of migrants from poorer European and poorer non-European countries and smaller shares of highly skilled natives and immigrants. Other surveys show that students are seen as more beneficial than labour migrants or those coming for spousal reunification (more information here).

In another article my findings suggest that residents in the UK and in Greece are the most likely to evaluate immigration as harmful to their country compared to other native-born respondents across 64 regions of 24 countries in Europe. Especially between 2002 and 2008 and while holding other differences between respondents and regions constant, views that immigration is harmful for the UK were more pronounced among those living in the West Midlands and in Yorkshire and the Humber compared to those in other regions.

How do we evaluate the impacts of immigration on the economy, culture, and quality of life in the UK?

To get a better idea of how people in the UK evaluate the impacts of immigration and how these attitudes vary depending on views about the EU, I draw information from a large-scale household survey conducted across most countries in Europe, the European Social Survey. For my analysis below I look at UK residents who are native-born in addition to being British nationals. I compare the attitudes of those who participated in 2012 (round 6) with attitudes of those who participated in 2004 (round 2).

In 2012, 48% of survey respondents said that immigration is bad for the economy, 39% thought that immigration undermines the country’s cultural life, and 44% reported that immigration makes the country a worse place to live (see figure 1). Although the gap between the two years is small and not necessarily statistically significant, more respondents evaluated immigration as bad for the economy and life overall in 2012 than in 2004. However, fewer people said that immigration undermines the country’s cultural life in 2012 than did in 2004.

Figure 1: Views on the impacts of immigration, 2004 & 2012

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

Not everyone appears to share the view that immigration can be harmful to the UK to the same extent. A comparison of evaluations between those who are quite or very interested in politics versus those who are not at all or hardly interested in political affairs shows significant disparities (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Interest in politics and views on immigration, 2004 & 2012

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

As seen in figure 2, only one third of those who report being interested in politics evaluate immigration as harmful to the economy, culture, and life overall. More than half of those not interested in politics share this view.

Has European unification gone too far?

In the simplest of terms, pro-EU persons tend to evaluate immigration more positively. Those who report that European unification has gone too far (figure 3) and those who lack trust in the European parliament (figure 4) report more negative evaluations on the impacts of immigration compared to other respondents.

More than half of those who think that European unification has gone too far also say that immigration is bad for the economy and that it makes the country a worse place to live. Among those who think that European unification has not gone far enough, however, much fewer say that immigration has negative impacts on the economy, culture, and quality of life.

Figure 3: Views on EU integration and immigration, 2004 & 2012

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

As shown in Figure 4, a similar pattern emerges when looking at levels of trust in the European Parliament and immigration opinions. In 2012, 56% of respondents who lack trust in the European parliament evaluated the impacts of immigration on the economy as bad, versus 36% of those who reported having trust. The disparity in evaluations between those with and without trust in the European Parliament is even larger when it comes to the impacts of immigration on culture (25% versus 48%) and quality of life (25% versus 55%).

Figure 4: Trust in European Parliament and views on immigration, 2004 & 2012

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

Notes: Weighted data from the European Social Survey rounds 2 & 6; UK sample includes about 3,700 respondents who are British nationals and who are born in the UK; categories in original scale variables are grouped (0-4 as 1 & 5-10 as 0)

The gap in immigration attitudes among those who view the EU positively and those who do not widened slightly in 2012 compared to 2004. This may point towards a higher polarisation in opinions on immigration and the EU over time, although more research is needed to claim anything with certainty.

This discussion draws on the author’s papers in the National Institute Economic Review and in Migration Studies and a previous commentary for the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog.