The public vs the politicians

The original publication date of this article is July 1, 2017 – ER Editor

The public vs the politicians

Nothing unites European public opinion like its views on migration



These are difficult times across Europe. From the endless iterations of the eurozone crisis to the Brexit negotiations beginning in earnest — these and many more challenges will face our continent for years to come. But underneath them all, lies a whole set of other ructions: subterranean events which lead to subterranean public concerns and subterranean public discussions.

Foremost among such deep rumblings are the anxieties of the European publics on matters to do with immigration, identity and Islam. These things are closely connected (so closely that I recently put them together in the subtitle of my book, The Strange Death of Europe), but they are unarguably stifled discussions. While politicians talk about immigration solely in terms of the benefits it brings — and clearly it does bring some — the public are understandably concerned that the downsides of migration are not merely ignored but actively covered up.

Some people say that we are ‘not allowed’ to talk about immigration; others, that we seem to always be talking about it. In fact both are true: we constantly have the same shallow conversations about the issues. These conversations do not address or satisfy people’s deep concerns — and at no point has this been clearer than in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, which may be off the front pages but which still continues.

All of this brings a problem of its own — one that has already led to some electoral shocks in recent years. Specifically, this is the widening gap between what the public thinks and what politicians allow themselves to say. One of the surest ways — if not the only way — to measure this gap is through opinion polls, such as the annual survey of EU citizens conducted by Project 28. And the latest found an array of significant facts.

For instance, even now, two years after the height of the migrant crisis, three-quarters of people across the EU think the organisation’s handling of it was ‘poor’. This shows no sign of changing. In 2016, 77 per cent of people thought it; in 2017 the figure is 76 per cent. There is not a single EU country in which the majority of people do not think the EU is doing a poor job (the best score is Malta where only 55 per cent think the EU is performing poorly). Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is in Italy and Greece that public opinion is most critical. There nearly nine out of ten (89 per cent) think the EU is handling the crisis poorly.

It is a stark set of figures. The financial crises of recent years have been serious, but the EU’s reviews from the public on its handling of the economic crises are positive compared to those on migration. Indeed the range of opinion of people thinking the EU has performed badly in its handling of the economic crises stretch from 12 per cent to 81 per cent. Nothing unites European public opinion like its views on migration and its criticism of the EU leadership during this period.

Everywhere opinion is heading down a familiar trajectory. When asked how they rate the job the EU is doing in fighting terrorism and preventing more attacks, 49 per cent of the European public thought the EU was doing a poor job. This year — maybe not unexpectedly given the number of attacks in the past 12 months — that figure has nudged up to over half (51 per cent). Across Europe the majority of the public see an upsurge in migration as leading to an upsurge in terrorism.

The clear lesson that the public takes from this wave of terror attacks is that the external borders of Europe should be more effectively policed. This is the inevitable conclusion to draw from — among others — the November 2015 Paris attacks, where members of the terrorist cell had slipped in and out of Europe and headed to Syria and back, using the migrant routes to disguise themselves. Before those attacks, EU officials had lambasted the public for making any connection between the migration crisis and the terror. Afterwards the politicians were forced to recognise that the public had a point.

This year a whopping 79 per cent of people across the EU agreed with the statement that the EU ‘should protect its outer European borders more effectively’. And there is not much disagreement between traditional political sides. Some 54 per cent of Germans who identify as being on the left agreed with this statement.


ER recommends other articles by The Spectator

About the author

Douglas Murray is Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society. His most recent book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam will be published on 4 May.