Coming together or drifting apart? Citizen attitudes in the EU’s area of free movement

May 22, 2018

by Moa Mårtensson

What kind of societal attitudes can be expected to influence a government´s readiness to support – or oppose – the free movement of workers within the EU? Prior research suggests that both institutions and norms have a role in shaping immigration policies in advanced democracies, and it also shows that such policies vary considerably across countries. The EU’s uniform rules on free movement currently break off from this diversity, but some EU member states have recently been pushing for reforms that would curb EU workers’ equal access to labor markets and welfare systems. What are the key factors behind this development? What role does public opinion play?

Our report forms part of a larger research project that explores the joint role of national welfare institutions and societal attitudes in shaping EU member states’ positions on free movement. This particular report maps societal attitudes and their longitudinal change patterns in Europe. We look into citizens’ views on the welfare state and labor market, European integration, immigration and the issue of free movement itself. Although our aim has been to present an extensive inventory of available data on citizen attitudes in these four areas, we have a particular interest in normative attitudes. We take these to be attitudes that are rooted in ideas about how things ought to be, but remain changeable in the short term in response to new facts or perceptions. They are more flexible than long-standing social norms, yet more reasoned and less volatile than opinions. As argued in a new working paper by our colleagues Martin Ruhs and Joakim Palme, normative attitudes are more likely than deep social norms (as well as rapidly changing opinions) to be shaped by – and in turn contribute to reshaping – institutions.

So, looking at normative attitudes across countries and over time, are European citizens coming closer together or rather drifting apart? This blog provides a few illustrative examples of our emerging findings. Our analysis covers all member states of the EU28. It also covers the EEA/EFTA countries Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland that participate in the EU’s free movement scheme on the basis of multilateral and bilateral agreements with the EU. We rely on survey data from the European Social Survey and the Eurobarometer.

We find that attitudes towards the welfare state and labor market often vary in line with the pattern found in prior research suggesting that there are two worlds of welfare attitudes. In the Northern and Western parts of Europe, the welfare state is positively evaluated both with regards to the basic idea of redistribution and its implementation. In Southern and Eastern Europe, in contrast, citizens are positively disposed towards the idea of redistribution, but less happy with its implementation. Two survey questions where responses vary greatly between European countries relate to the state of health services on the one hand and gender equality in the job market on the other. The idea that women should prioritize family over work is most strongly opposed by citizens in the Nordic countries, and most strongly supported in the East.

Another salient topic in research on welfare attitudes that is relevant to European debates about free movement is welfare chauvinism – the perception that immigrants are less deserving of social rights than natives. Comparing the years 2008 and 2016, Figure 1 below shows that citizens in the area of free movement have on average moved towards more generous views on immigrants’ access to the welfare state. The only exceptions to the general trend towards more generosity are the Czech Republic (CZ), the Netherlands (NL) and Switzerland (CH). Whereas the group of countries that shows a more generous disposition than the EU/EFTA average are Northern/Western states, the group of countries that are more restrictive than the average is mixed and contains all of the Eastern member states in our sample, along with four Northern/Western states, Austria (AT), Finland (FI), the Netherlands (NL) and the United Kingdom (GB).

Figure 1 Welfare chauvinism: When should immigrants obtain the same rights to social benefits and services as citizens already living here?

Note: Countries are sorted by mean preference in 2016. Source: European Social Survey 2008 and 2016

Turning to attitudes towards immigration as such, we find that they differ substantially between the EU/EFTA countries, and differences have increased between the years of 2002 and 2014. Citizens in Hungary and the Czech Republic are outliers with more restrictive attitudes than any other country in our sample. A development towards more negative attitudes in these countries between 2002 and 2014 reinforced this pattern even further. At the other extreme, we find citizens in the Nordic countries that are outliers with more positive attitudes towards immigration, and a development towards even more positive attitudes between 2002 and 2014. Two survey questions, in particular, generated widely different responses between countries: whether being white should serve as a qualification for immigration, and whether the immigration of people from outside the EU evokes a positive or negative feeling. Figure 2 shows the comparatively large attitudinal differences revealed by the latter question, in 2014 and 2016.

Figure 2 Attitudes to immigration: Positive or negative feeling towards the immigration of people from outside the EU?

Note: Countries are sorted by mean attitude in 2016. Source: Eurobarometer 2014 and 2016

Whereas the welfare state and immigration have long been considered core aspects of the nation state, our new working paper also covers a range of other attitudes relating to the European project as such: European integration, European citizenship and free movement. We find that citizens’ evaluations of the EU’s core policy of free movement differ depending on whether inward or outward mobility is considered. Whereas attitudes towards the outward free movement of workers consistently fall into a pattern where the most positive respondents come from Europe’s Eastern states, and the most skeptical respondents from Western states, the question of inward free movement of workers is another story: It encounters the strongest resistance among respondents in Western and Southern countries, and the strongest support in a mixed group of countries. Over and above these differences, the overall picture is arguably positive news for the proponents of free movement. Public opinion towards the immigration of people from other EU countries has become more favorable in all EU/EFTA member states except Denmark.

Figure 3 Attitudes to inward free movement: Positive or negative feeling towards the immigration of people from other EU Member States?

Note: Countries are sorted by mean attitude in 2016. Source: Eurobarometer 2014 and 2016

Finally, looking at attitudes towards European integration and European citizenship, we find that they vary depending on the dimension considered, and evolved quite differently across countries. For example, while people in Sweden and Finland (FI) identify more with Europe in 2016 than in 2002, Italy above all has moved in the opposite direction. Looking at citizens’ identification with Europe and their attitudes towards EU citizenship (Figure 3), the member states do not come across as particularly europeanized, with the possible exception of Luxembourg (LU). Respondents in Greece identify themselves as EU citizens to a lesser extent than respondents in other EU/EFTA states. Moreover, respondents in all Southern European countries and several Eastern European countries feel that they do not really know their rights as citizens of the EU, or only know about them to some extent.

Figure 4 Attitudes towards European citizenship: Do you feel like a citizen of the European Union?

Note: Countries are sorted by mean attitude in 2016. Source: Eurobarometer 2014 and 2016

So, what do these differences in societal attitudes imply for the future of free movement and the prospects for a closer union? According to Ernst Haas’ classic work The Uniting of Europe (that turns sixty this year), political integration is a “process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations and political activities toward a new political centre.” Our analysis suggests that quite a few European citizens have only just begun that journey. Will Europe’s political leaders deliver convincing arguments in favor of free movement, or will the main message be that it has to be rolled back? And how will such arguments be received by citizens in the EU’s 28 member states? Our bet is that the workings of national labor markets and welfare institutions will have a role to play in that equation.


You can read the working paper here.

About the author

Moa Mårtensson is a Researcher at the Department of Government at the University of Uppsala.

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