Do Europeans Really Fear Migrants?

LONDON – Far-right parties are set to make substantial gains in the upcoming European Parliament election. Though analysts differ on whether this populist wave is fleeting, whether it will seriously harm European Union policymaking, and whether it will be sustained in national elections, they tend to agree on at least one thing: support for such parties is often grounded in anti-migrant sentiment. Appearances and received wisdom, however, can deceive.

Populism takes many forms, and the logic of its success varies from place to place. But economic discontent (often associated with the euro), anger at the political establishment, the resurgent appeal of nationalism, and negative sentiment toward the EU are all recurring themes, whether it be in the United Kingdom, France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, or Denmark.

It is also true that migrants figure prominently in populist rhetoric throughout the EU. But it would be dangerously mistaken to conclude that the mere presence of migrants in Europe fuels support for extremists. A much stronger case could be made that it is the absence of effective policies to manage migration that has alienated European voters.

Strikingly, the far right only has a faint heartbeat in those EU member states that have been the most proactive in managing migration and immigrant integration. Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Portugal, for example, have done more than most others to open legal channels for migration and invest in migrants’ integration.