State of the European Union, Part 2

13 February 2024

This is the second installment of a series of posts on the European Union, the first of which appeared here yesterday and dealt with security. Today’s topic is:


European attitudes toward immigration are complex and contradictory. A widespread desire to see immigration flows reduced has been a crucial factor in driving voters toward right-wing populist parties. Yet at the same time there is recognition that labor shortages and demographic challenges create a need for continued immigration. The contradiction is perhaps most visible in the U.K. (not an EU member-state, of course), where opposition to immigration, a major factor in the 2016 Brexit vote, has subsequently softened.[1] The economic downturn that followed Brexit no doubt contributed to the perception that there is an economic cost to restricting immigration. Right-wing elements of the Conservative Party do not seem to have gotten the message, however, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seems determined to appease them by passing a bill authorizing deportations to Rwanda.

Is the relative softening of anti-immigrant attitudes peculiar to the U.K.? Local conditions do play a major role in shaping public opinion. So-called “front-line states” such as Greece, Italy, and Spain complain of being asked to bear an undue burden. Just as in the U.K., however, there is broad recognition of immigrants’ economic contributions.[2] Indeed, Italian industrial leaders let the government know that they counted on a steady flow of immigrants to fill jobs that otherwise go begging for workers.

But attitudes on these matters are strongly polarized, and even where majorities favorable to immigration exist, they are slim at best. In Germany, which absorbed more than 1.5 million Syrian and other refugees in 2015 with remarkable success, resistance to further inflows seems to have increased, even though most recent refugees have come from Ukraine, a (Christian) European country and candidate for EU membership. Everywhere there is worry, exacerbated by demagogues and certain media outlets, that sustained immigration at current levels will slowly submerge the cultural and linguistic identities of the receiving countries. Such fears, exaggerated though they may be, have undoubtedly contributed to the recent electoral success of parties like Germany’s AfD and Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands. In France, continuing anxiety over immigration proved potent enough to bring the far right and far left together to defeat the government’s immigration reform bill by a narrow five-vote margin. An even tougher bill, drafted by the French Senate, replaced it, causing a rift in Macron’s party and ultimately leading to the forced departure of several ministers unenthusiastic about the outcome. A subsequent cabinet reshuffle saw the appointment of Gabriel Attal as prime minister. Attal, according to polls among the most popular political figures in France despite his tender age and lack of experience, owes his popularity almost entirely to his sponsorship, as education minister, of a move to ban the abaya in public schools. To get ahead in French politics today, it pays to demonstrate hostility to visible markers of difference.

Cultural insecurity is not the only factor driving hostility to immigration. Handling immigrant inflows involves expenditures that are unevenly distributed across state structures. In Germany, for example, municipal and state governments have borne the lion’s share of the cost of housing, educating, and providing medical care for newcomers without sufficient compensation from the increasingly squeezed national budget (on which more later). In France, medical aid for foreigners (AME) has long been an irritant to citizens who believe (wrongly) that immigrants have access to better health care than they do. Calculating the costs and benefits of immigration is an exercise as difficult—and futile—as attempting to separate fact from fiction in reports of alleged immigrant crime. Political pressures on immigration-related issues therefore build in unpredictable ways, obliging parties to respond with promises they cannot keep and programs that are more aspirational than rational. Random crimes are escalated to matters of national security: witness the killing of a French teenager in a fight after a dance in the rural town of Crépol, which led Laurent Wauquiez, who seeks the presidential nomination of Les Républicains, to try to outbid Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in denouncing the nefarious consequences of what the right alleges is “unchecked” immigration, despite the fact that France has accepted far fewer immigrants over the past decade than its neighbor across the Rhine.

Politically, the contentious immigration issue has contributed to further erosion of long-standing party systems.  In Germany, for example, Sahra Wagenknecht, once a mainstay of the far-left Die Linke party, concluded that leaving the immigration issue to the far-right risked undermining working-class support for the Left. She therefore abandoned Die Linke to found the eponymous Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. [3] The ostensibly centrist Macron-Attal government has rescinded the droit du sol for the French département of Mayotte, sacrificing the principle of the indivisibility of the Republic to the expediency of shutting off one (quite insignificant) point of entry.

But perhaps the most suprising development is the evolution of Giorgia Meloni’s position since her accession to the post of prime minister of Italy. While in opposition, she blamed the “neoliberal” EU for enticing immigrants to European shores in order to swell the ranks of the reserve army of the proletariat. Although her coalition partner Matteo Salvini continues this line, Meloni has evolved in two ways: she no longer believes that tougher border controls and increased deportations will suffice to stem the flow, and she therefore seeks to forge a closer relationship with the sending states, not only to encourage economic development there in order to keep their workers at home but also to enhance Italy’s standing in the world by taking on a leadership role.

In this, of course, Meloni is not alone. Emmanuel Macron has for years been lecturing his aides on the idea that unless there is some leveling of economic differences and some moderation of global warming, the immigration problem will only grow worse. This is certainly a clear-eyed view. But the problem for both Macron and Meloni is that paying lip-service to the need for developing the under-developed is one thing; actually achieving the goal at a level sufficient to induce potential migrants to stay put is another. But who wouldn’t want to see Meloni’s African initiative, the so-called Mattei Plan, yield a better outcome than that of her forebear Mussolini’s initiatives in Abyssinia?



[1] See

[2] “Furthermore, the majority of Europeans think that non-EU immigrants are well integrated in their local communities (54%) and see integration as a necessary investment in the long-run for their country (69%). While most citizens across Europe think that immigrants have an overall positive impact on their host countries, as they fill jobs for which it’s hard to find workers and enrich the country’s cultural life, others consider them as a burden on the national welfare system or as criminals.” See,welfare%20system%20or%20as%20criminals



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1 Comment

  • bernard says:

    “The ostensibly centrist Macron-Attal government has rescinded the droit du sol for the French département of Mayotte, sacrificing the principle of the indivisibility of the Republic to the expediency of shutting off one (quite insignificant) point of entry”.
    This is a desire by the Macron-Attal government, not yet implemented, and difficult to implement. It will among other hurdles necessitate a revision in the Constitution which, given the disposition of political forces, will be difficult to achieve with the exact same language in both chambers of parliament. It will then require a 3/5th approval in the joint parliament assembly or approval in a referendum.

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