Will reform of the EU’s migration system weaken the populist parties in June’s elections?

Will reform of the EU’s migration system weaken the populist parties in June’s elections?

15. 02. 2024 – Lomond

On 8 February, member state representatives approved a provisional deal that had been reached between the EU Council presidency and the European Parliament just before Christmas on a major reform of the bloc’s asylum and migration system.

The context here is, of course, the upcoming European elections in June, where it seems likely that we will see a major shift to the right, with populist parties gaining seats across the EU.

Indeed, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an international think tank, recently published a report predicting that “anti-European populists” were likely to top the polls in nine member states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia) and come second or third in a further nine countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden).

In a separate policy brief from the ECFR, also published last month, the most important policy areas for the election campaign were also considered. It concluded that “covid-19, the economy, and Ukraine are unlikely to be key mobilising issues. The climate and migration crises are dominating headlines and will be especially influential in how people vote…Those who view migration as the biggest crisis will very likely vote for centre-right or far-right parties.”

That brief also underlined the drive amongst policy-makers in Brussels and many member state capitals to take the sting out of the migration issue prior to the elections: “Migration used to be the ultimate nationalist cause, but EU institutions and pro-European governments are now Europeanising the issue. The EU establishment has taken it up in an effort to find a shared European solution, most notably by adopting a common European migration and asylum policy.”

So that’s the context behind the provisional agreement that has just been reached to overhaul the EU’s asylum and migration system. The question is whether it will work – whether it will indeed weaken the populist cause.

To help answer that question, it’s useful to look at recent Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion across Europe. As always, you can’t read too much into individual polls, but two Eurobarometer surveys were published in December – the 100th ‘Standard Eurobarometer’ and the ‘EP Autumn 2023 Survey’ – which provide some helpful indicators.  

First, a very obvious point: immigration is a much more salient issue in some countries than others:

Take a look at Germany, the biggest member state in the Union, where 44% of respondents said that immigration was one of the top-two issues facing the country right now. This helps explain why it has risen so high up the EU’s priority list, with the forthcoming election likely to lead to Alternative for Germany (AfD) becoming the second largest German party in the European Parliament.

But contrast Germany with countries further east. With the exception of Slovenia, all of the member states in Central & Eastern Europe (CEE) are below the EU average line. Seven of them are in the bottom 10 countries on this chart. That’s not a massive surprise given the relatively low levels of immigration across this region, but it’s important context nonetheless.

Even more interesting is whether voters see migration as a European issue or not – a question which Eurobarometer’s ‘EP Autumn 2023 Survey’ helps answer:

This is slightly less clear-cut, but the Czech Republic is the only CEE member state above the average line here. Eight of the 11 CEE member states are in the bottom half of this table.

That doesn’t mean that people in CEE are opposed to strengthening the EU’s external borders, though. In fact, in every CEE country apart from Romania and Estonia, 80%+ of people are in favour of reinforcing the EU’s external borders with more European border guards and coast guards:

However, they make a distinction between strengthening external borders and developing a common EU policy on migration – for which support is significantly lower across CEE than it is in Western Europe:

The Austrian numbers are particularly interesting, partly because there is such a discrepancy with Germany, but also because they emphasise the real challenge facing the EU in this area. Austria was second only to Malta in terms of the percentage of people who want the European Parliament to prioritise migration and asylum policy (see second chart above), yet is in the bottom handful of countries here for those in favour of a common European policy on migration. It suggests that while many Austrians see immigration as being a top priority (at EU level as well as nationally), they don’t support a stronger role for the EU.

This is clearly not only an Austrian phenomenon, and it illustrates why this area is so difficult for the EU. Even in countries where immigration is not the most salient issue, there will be many voters who care deeply about it and also lean Eurosceptic: voters who you would expect to be attracted to the right-wing “anti-European populists” that are on course to do well in June.

To neutralise this appeal, the EU’s – entirely rational – response is to put in place stronger policy measures in areas of concern such as migration. What other option does it have? But stronger policy measures mean an expanded role for the EU, which these voters oppose. It’s a Catch-22, and it suggests that, at least in some parts of Europe, the reform of the EU’s asylum and migration system is unlikely to do much to halt the march of the populist parties towards the European elections in June.