Public Attitudes Toward EU Mobility and Non-EU Immigration: A Distinction with Little Difference

August 6, 2018

By  Scott Blinder & Yvonni Markaki

Public opinion toward immigration can vary greatly depending on the identities of the immigrants in question, whether in reality or in the perceptions of opinion holders. Attitudes toward inflows of scientists, students, or other skilled, high income workers are often quite positive, compared to, for example, low-skilled workers or asylum seekers. But is EU citizenship one of the dimensions of difference that matters in public opinion? Do Europeans prefer EU nationals to other prospective immigrants? Certainly the EU as an institution makes a sharp distinction between intra-EU “mobility”—a foundational freedom for EU citizens—and non-EU migration which member states have the right to limit and control independently. The EU project in effect requires some portion of the public who prefer restrictionist immigration policies to make an exception for other EU nationals, or at least to tolerate such an exception.

Despite the political importance of this distinction, the literature on public opinion toward EU vs. non-EU migration is sparse. In fact, the literature lacks up-to-date answers even for simple descriptive questions, such as whether or not EU citizens are more supportive of intra-EU mobility than of non-EU migration. As we show in our previous report, less than 10% of European Social Survey (ESS) respondents prefer inflows of some or many immigrants from Europe while preferring to restrict immigration from outside Europe to few or none.

In this paper we take our analysis a step further and ask: why do some Europeans favour EU immigration, when the majority are either supportive or opposed in general? We focus in particular on understanding the two groups that we label Europe-only and EU-only inclusionists: individuals who support substantial levels of immigration to their country from either within Europe or the EU, respectively, while favouring heavy restrictions on immigration from the rest of the world. For those who do prefer European or EU migration, what might explain this pattern of preferences?

Since the borders of the EU continue to change over time, we first focus on people who prefer European over non-European immigration, without defining whether inflows originate from countries that are current EU members. We find that Europe-only inclusionists report more positive attitudes towards further EU unification and are more likely to feel comfortable on their present household income. On the other hand, general restrictionists, i.e. people who support inflow restrictions regardless of origin from within or outside Europe, tend to hold more negative views towards the EU and its institutions, and are more likely to struggle on their current income. Both groups tend to be older than average.

Figure 1

Notes: Based on 27,352 respondents across 19 EU and EFTA countries in ESS7 (nationals of country of residence); Result of multinomial logit regression with clustered standard errors; the dot corresponds to the estimated marginal effect of factor variable on the probability of expressing support for each category of inflow preference; the lines correspond to the range of the effect’s estimated error on each side of the 95% confidence interval.


Next, we take advantage of an experimental set of questions that allow us to differentiate between attitudes to different skill levels (unskilled/skilled) and origins (EU/Europe non-EU/Outside Europe).

To what extent do EU origins matter? We find a modest preference for EU mobility over other origins and a strong preference for skilled inflows. Our results point towards a 7-10% increase in support for inclusion if asked about EU immigrants compared to other origins, which holds across skill levels. In contrast, the high-skilled advantage is estimated at about 28 percentage points. Support for allowing many or some immigrants is predicted at 73% for respondents asked about skilled EU workers but 46% for those asked about unskilled workers coming from the same EU country (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Notes: Based on 28,985 respondents across 19 EU and EFTA countries in ESS7 (nationals of country of residence); Result of multilevel mixed effects logistic regression with wording treatment accounted as fixed (individual) and random (country) effect; the dot corresponds to the average probability of expressing support for allowing many or some immigrants of the respective origin and skills; the lines correspond to the estimated range of the probability on each side of the 95% confidence interval.


Who is most and least likely to support EU inflows? The probability of supporting immigration of at least some unskilled workers from EU countries is lowest among people in low-skilled occupations, those in poor health, and those who find it difficult to cope on their income. The chances are also low among those who think that EU unification has gone too far and those who value being Christian as an important condition for immigration. On the other end of the spectrum, the likelihood of opting for inclusion of inflows of unskilled EU workers is highest among respondents who have a high level of education, and those who think that speaking the country’s official language and being committed to the way of life of the country are unimportant conditions for immigration.

Our results raise a series of questions. We find little evidence of an inclination to make an exception for other EU citizens compared to other immigrants. Furthermore, opposition to migration of low-skilled workers is widespread and consistent cross-nationally. Most Europeans hold to this set of preferences, even when the low-skilled workers in question come from Europe or the EU, and even when the high-skilled workers come from more distant origins. This pattern contrasts sharply with the normative position entrenched in EU treaties that dramatically favours EU mobility over non-EU immigration. It also represents an ongoing challenge for the EU as a political community, since free movement will inevitably include mobility of low-skilled workers in search of better opportunities and wages.


You can read the working paper here.

About the authors

Scott Blinder is leading the REMINDER work package focusing on the drivers of opinions and norms. He is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UMass Amherst and previously served as Director of the Migration Observatory. He is a political scientist specialising in public opinion toward migration and its impacts on elections and policy.

Yvonni Markaki is a researcher on the REMINDER project. She previously worked with the Migration Observatory as a research officer and also assisted the Global Exchange on Migration & Diversity. She specialises in international migration and the analysis of comparative survey data.


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