Hard times have little impact on immigration attitudes

The success of right wing parties across Europe during the recent European elections has been held by some to be linked to a growth in anti-immigration sentiment. Rising unemployment and falling real incomes have hit all economies hard and  unrestricted immigration has been blamed for some of our economic ills. However, as new research from Professor Tim Hatton, of Essex University shows, public attitudes towards immigration have changed very little since 2002. So should the debate should move away from immigration and should policy makers look more closely at the drivers behind the growth in Euro-scepticism when confronting the growth of right wing populism?

photo credit: Kevin McGarry

Those who feel the success of UKIP and other right-wing parties in the recent Euro elections is a clear sign of souring public attitudes to immigration may have to think again. New research has shown that public opinion on immigration has changed little across Europe in the past decade, despite the economic shocks of global recession.

“The most striking finding that emerges from my research is how little opinion on immigration has changed since before the recession” Professor Tim Hatton

Professor Hatton’s study looked into links between the recession and public attitudes towards immigration in 20 EU countries. What he found dispelled the widely-held belief that public opinion on immigration becomes more negative in times of severe recession, when jobs are scarce.

Using data from the European Social Survey (ESS) from 2002-2012, Professor Hatton looked at attitudes towards immigrants and immigration before and after the global financial crisis. He said:

“The most striking finding that emerges from my research, is how little opinion on immigration has changed since before the recession. In fact, there seems to be a very mild positive trend in opinion towards immigrants, on average across Europe, with a slight setback in the few years following recession.”

Professor Hatton found that the key influences on average opinion are the share of immigrants in the population and the share of social spending in a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Once these factors are taken into account, the unemployment rate has very little effect on attitudes to immigration.

However, the countries hardest hit by the recession, such as Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain, were the ones which showed the biggest, albeit modest, change in public opinion to immigration.

With the resurgence of right-wing populism more prominent in northern Europe than the recession-hit south, this implies that the recent rightward shift in political attitudes in Europe may owe more to the politics of Euro-scepticism than to a groundswell of anti-immigration opinion among the general public.

Tim Hatton is Professor of Economics at Essex University

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