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The Roots of European Division

With the European Parliament elections fast approaching, many fear a surge in support for populist anti-immigrant forces. But while Europe’s political polarization may sometimes look like a culture war over migration, ultimately it stems from regional economic disparities that European Union leaders must address.

MILAN – Governments in some countries on the periphery of the European Union are staunchly opposed to immigration on nationalist grounds. And yet their constituents are increasingly worried about the opposite threat: that their friends and family members will pick up and leave. In fact, Hungarians, Poles, and Italians have already been departing their respective countries in droves, and recent polling finds that those who remain are far more worried about the citizens leaving than the foreigners coming in.

According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, 52% of Italians would support legislation making it “illegal for their own citizens to leave for long periods of time,” as would 50% of Poles and 49% of Hungarians. And similar attitudes can be found in Romania and Spain, albeit without the same levels of widespread “exit anxiety.”

Nonetheless, with the approach of the European Parliament election later this month, the ruling parties in Budapest, Warsaw, and Rome are drumming up fears of an immigrant “invasion” that is supposedly already underway. The apparent contradiction between this message and what voters actually feel is worth considering as we try to predict what the next EU Parliament will look like.