Quantifying the Public-Elite Divide on Immigration in Europe

The British think tank Chatham House just completed phase two of an interesting study. The first phase polled 10,000 Europeans on a host of public policy issues, including immigration. The top-line result — a whopping 56% of European oppose further immigration from Muslim countries — came out in February 2017. That took wind out of the sails of European press commentators, who were busy denouncing Donald Trump's plans to…stop further immigration from Muslim countries.

Perhaps inspired by this glaring disconnect between public opinion and published opinion, Chatham House decided to conduct a follow-up survey of European elites, which it defined as "individuals in positions of influence at local, regional, national and European levels across four key sectors (elected politicians, the media, business and civil society) – with 1,823 respondents (approximately 180 from each country) who were surveyed through a mix of telephone, face-to-face and online interviews."

A few days ago, the findings came out in a report called "The Future of Europe: Comparing Public and Elite Attitudes". The result: Europeans are hugely more skeptical about immigration, especially from Muslim countries, than the elites who govern them. Here are a few charts:

Attitudes 1

Attitudes 2The report concludes: "These views reveal latent public sympathy for the core messages of the radical right on these topics. There are big socio-demographic differences, however, between those who hold such views. Citizens aged over 60 and with a lower level of education are notably more likely to view European and Islamic ways of life as irreconcilable. On some questions, there is also significant support among the elite sample. One possible explanation for such views among the elite is anxiety over the perceived challenge from Islam to liberal values, a concern that has become manifest in debates in France and the Netherlands over moves to impose partial bans on Islamic dress that covers the face. It may also be a consequence of recent Islamist terrorist attacks and of the fears of an increasingly divided society."

A few observations. First, the authors of the report are using the term "radical right" in the sense of "outside the mainstream". That's obtuse. When only 25% of of Europeans think immigration's been beneficial overall, and nearly twice that number think it's harmful, these views are mainstream. The problem is not that voters have been somehow "seduced" into endorsing "radical right" views. The problem is that only the right has taken up mainstream thinking on this issue. The democratic problem is not the popularity of the "radical" right. The democratic problem is the failure of any mainstream party to reflect the views of a majority of citizens in many EU countries. In the long term, this is an unsustainable and potentially dangerous state of affairs.

Second, these numbers reflect the bubble in which elites live. When urban elites (and yes, I include myself) think about immigration, they spontaneously associate it with (1) great ethnic food and (2) the individuals they know who come from these countries. I can't count the number of times I've heard educated, prosperous Europeans (they have a lot of discreet charm, but they're pretty conformist) make exactly these two points at dinner parties. "Oh, there's a great new Ethiopian place which opened up just a few streets away. Yay immigration!" and "The Iranian guy in my physics Ph. D. program is so nice and smart. Yay immigration!" Sometimes, you hear both cliches in one comment: "The nice Iranian guy in my physics Ph. D. program brought in a delicious lamb dish for us all to share last week! Yay immigration!"

Unless they actually live in run-down, gritty areas of German or French cities (spoiler alert: they don't), these urban elites will be unfamiliar with the nastier realities of immigration. There is no chance of them living next to a run-down high-rise which is taken over by immigrants and turned into a garbage-strewn sinkhole of bottom-barrel prostitution and drug-dealing (g). Nor do they live in streets where spontaneous mobs of clan members beat and terrorize police and bystanders (g). Nor is anyone going to build refugee shelters (g) in the high-rent inner-city neighborhoods they love. If any of these things do happen, our urban elites will discreetly move to more prosperous surroundings, without ever admitting exactly why (not enough dog parks…need more room for the kids…a friend of mine told me about this great place that just came on the market…)

Some form of this divide has, of course, always existed. However, it seems to me that it is growing rapidly now, and that the willingness of elites to frankly acknowledge the divide — much less actually do anything to bridge it — is steadily decreasing. That spells trouble, methinks.

7 thoughts on “Quantifying the Public-Elite Divide on Immigration in Europe

  1. Being the elite, numbers do not matter very much. You can by default always resort to enforcement or coercion to get your way:


    If I were Latvia, I’d relocate the country out of the EU pronto before large chunks of Syria, Nigeria or anywhere else get relocated to Latvia with the help of EU money (guess where that would come from).

    But that wouldn’t serve the interests of the Latvian elites, I guess…

    Which interests? Once more Bernie Sanders’ interpretation: “right-wing people in this country would love … an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them.”

    Stuff the world.


  2. Very good point, as always…these views are mainstream… I just returned from a week in Malaga, Spain. Incredibly safe. Wonderful Women out walking alone after midnight. Police/security guys actively patrolling the streets and subways–looking to prevent trouble instead of wishing it away. A treat to be surrounded by a homogeneous, law-abiding population. And people wait at traffic crossings–like people in Germany used to do. And as for…garbage-strewn sinkhole of bottom-barrel prostitution and drug-dealing, see the area around the Frankfurt train station “tunnel galleria”. Heroin shots, all kinds of hash-based on the Afghan illegal selling it, Moroccans selling pot, and on and on. This place has deteriorated quickly within the past 3 years. And the police do nothing. And Germany plans on getting all of this Brexit Bank business. No German (elite or otherwise) would venture down there.


  3. I’ve been saying the same thing for years, Andrew, about immigration here in Canada (well, saying it quietly to those who might share the sentiment, because…you know…racism). My neighbours on our upscale street (we are a pair of lawyers) are all successful business people or professors from around the world. No problem here with immigration. Ask my cleaning lady, though, whose apartment building is filled with immigrants, and whose daughter’s school has to devote vast resources to English-as-a-Second-Language concerns, and the perspective shifts dramatically.

    In reading those stats you posted, I actually find it heartening that more than 30% of ‘elites’ have concerns as well. Perhaps their concerns are founded on how the mainstream views affect their own electability, but maybe, just maybe, some of them are starting to see the big picture. After all, you and I are elites and we ‘get it,’ right?


  4. The democratic problem is the failure of any mainstream party to reflect the views of a majority of citizens in many EU countries

    That is frankly an absurd statement IMHO. A political party, mainstream or not, has the right to hold and promote any view it sees fit, within the boundaries of the constitution. If it turns out that these ideas are out of touch with the views of the majority, then the party will normally lose support. In that case the failure to reflect the majority’s views becomes a problem for the party, but not for democracy. A “democratic problem” would only exist if those with different views were not allowed to form, join or support movements or parties that promote diverging views, or if these parties could not participate in the democracy in the same way as the mainstream parties.

    Instead of blaming mainstream parties for not understanding what the people want, I would blame the people for not taking the right measures to change things. Campaign for the AfD if that’s what you think is in your own and your fellow citizen’s best interest. Or create your own party.


  5. The funny thing here is that the AfD is itself out of touch with the majority of the people when it comes to nuclear energy, the minimum wage, gay marriage, conscription and pensions.


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