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EU elections: Eastern, southern Europeans dread emigration more than immigration

Yves Herman, Reuters | EU flags in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.

With just seven weeks to go before EU Parliament elections a sweeping study shows that, despite a rise in anti-immigration rhetoric, many Eastern and southern Europeans say they are more worried about emigration.

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Despite efforts by some to frame EU legislative elections set for May 23-26 as a referendum on immigration policies, European citizens are not preoccupied by the issue, according to a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study conducted by the YouGov polling firm and released Monday.

The survey of 45,000 people across 14 EU countries takes in 80 percent of European Parliament seats, providing an enlightening snapshot of EU public opinion. Only 23 percent of those polled cited immigration as one of the two most important issues facing their country at the moment – a figure comparable to the proportion citing unemployment (20 percent), the cost of living (18 percent), health (17 percent) and corruption (16 percent).

The ‘myth’ of immigration

“Most European leaders blindly subscribed to the idea that immigration was European citizens’ one and only preoccupation, but that’s a myth,” ECFR political analyst Pawel Zerka told FRANCE 24 on Monday. Zerka says that most of those surveyed did not note any effect of migration on their own lives, their jobs, their national identity or their personal security. It was only their perception of migration's impact on crime and security at the country-wide level that a majority of citizens deemed its overall effects to be negative.

Only Hungarians ranked migration as the top threat to the EU, which is “little wonder given the endless stream of propaganda that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban puts out through his state-controlled media”, according to ECFR director Mark Leonard.

In contrast, when the spectre of emigration is raised – people leaving their countries to settle elsewhere – more Hungarians (39 percent) and Italians (32 percent) say they are worried, despite the fiery rhetoric from Orban and Italy’s vehemently anti-migrant Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

The same goes for Spain (34 percent), and Romania (55 percent) and Poland (30 percent) farther east.

“It is one of the main revelations of our study: Emigration is a concern that must be addressed,” says Zerka.

‘A move towards self-imprisonment’

Among the countries that worry most about emigration, a majority of those surveyed said they would even support legislation to prevent citizens from leaving their countries for extended periods of time.

“In a Europe that prides itself on tearing down borders and promoting free travel, this move towards self-imprisonment is remarkable, but perhaps understandable,” Leonard writes. “In Romania, one in five citizens have left their country over the last decade." He said those left behind feel so desperate that they seem ready to construct new barriers for themselves, just three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The issues surrounding immigration are nevertheless likely to resurface during the European legislative campaign period. Far-right parties will likely seek to exploit the sentiments of the 22 percent of those polled who see “Islamic radicalism” as the top threat hanging over Europe by attempting to fuse the issues of radicalisation and immigration.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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