10 March 2020

Brexit Britain can now claim to be the most pro-migration country in Europe

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How will Brexit affect Britain’s relationships within Europe and beyond? Boris Johnson talks about a “global Britain”, while his critics point out that Leave voters have a more protectionist idea of “taking back control” than some liberal Leavers want to acknowledge.

Yet the fascinating findings of one of the first major comparative snapshots of post-Brexit views offers grounds for optimism to the post-Brexit internationalists.

major YouGov survey for the German newspaper Handelsblatt, conducted in February, compares British public opinion to attitudes in France and Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The findings show that the British public retain much admiration for our European neighbours – an admiration that is, despite Brexit, still largely reciprocated. And it shows too that a country recently famous for the migration scepticism that drove much of the Brexit argument in the run-up to 2016 has been changing its mind about immigration, to the extent that Britain now has a strong claim to be, comparatively, among the most pro-migration of European societies as this new decade begins.

Brexit has now happened – but the survey tells a familiar story of people still split down the middle on whether it was the right thing to do. Leaving the EU is regarded as a mistake by 42% to 40% – though clear majorities are sceptical about the EU institutions, capturing the Eurosceptic instincts of many reluctant Remainers. Yet asked about a range of European societies, there is a striking warmth, far too broad to be confined to one referendum tribe.

This British public are considerably more favourable to France – 61% favourable to 25% unfavourable (+36%) than the United States of America, whose approval rating of 53% to 37% (+13%) probably indicates a Trump era hangover.  Germany is yet more popular, by 67% to 17%. But the love of Scandinavia appears to be almost universal, with approval ratings of over 80% to just 3% disapproval for Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Thank you for the music, and perhaps the flat-pack furniture too.

This British warmth towards the continent is broadly reciprocated – but a little more contingently. Almost three-quarters of the Danes and the Swedes approve of the British, with net approval in France too of +28. But German favourability towards Britain (+12) is now much narrower than British approval of Germany (+50). If the British don’t see why Brexit should affect European friendships, there may be more scepticism about that in Germany – where Brexit has been taken more seriously, perhaps more personally, than in Scandinavia, where links in sport, culture and education may trump politics.

The Handelsblatt poll asked respondents to rate the overall contribution of immigration to their country, using an 11-point scale. The UK stands out in the comparative findings – with the most positive overall attitudes, the broadest pro-migration constituency in public opinion, and the weakest base for anti-migration populism.

In the UK, 45% of respondents chose a score which was more positive than negative, while 33% were in the bottom half of the range, giving a net positive rating of +12. In the other European countries surveyed, most respondents saw the glass as more than half-empty, with negative perceptions dominating in Sweden (-22), Germany (-24), Denmark (-26) and France (-33).

The potential potency of populism in driving immigration debates across Europe is captured in considerably larger minorities – 14% in Germany and Denmark, and 21% in both France and Sweden – selecting the lowest possible score on the 11-point scale, while only 7% did in the UK.

The YouGov/Handelsblatt survey is not a one-off. It fits the consistent trend across many UK and comparative studies. Shifting British attitudes to migration over the last five years have now made Britain a positive outlier in attitudes across Europe. Why this has happened – and what this could mean for the immigration reform debate in this parliament – is the topic of a new report, ‘The Reset Moment’, co-published by British Future and the Policy Institute at King’s College London next week.

If the 2016 referendum appears to have had a cathartic effect, it is because nobody can credibly claim that they aren’t even allowed to talk about immigration. So the question becomes “what are we going to choose” – a more granular debate, in which there is a broad consensus on the value on student and skilled migration, and a pragmatic one too, about the need for people to come and work in care homes and on farms.

The contrast between British and European attitudes is partly because respondents are thinking about different things. How people answer survey questions on immigration depends on the “imagined immigration” that comes most easily to mind. Inside the EU, freedom of movement retains broad support – by six to one in the Handelsblatt survey – but lacks salience, and is often not thought of as immigration at all. Public attitudes on the continent about migration may therefore reflect public concern about the ability to successfully integrate refugees in recent years. YouGov does, however, find a split on the absence of borders between EU states – where majority approval in Germany is countered by sceptical majorities in France, Denmark and Sweden.

The British immigration debate is now a broader one. When British people talk about immigration, a handful of images persistently recur: doctors and nurses from the Commonwealth and those who have come to work from Poland; along with refugees fleeing the war in Syria, and asylum-seekers hoping to come to Britain from Calais. Both the coverage of the 3 million Europeans in Britain and of the Windrush scandal put names and faces to the numbers in the immigration statistics, generating more empathy in the debate. When respondents to an Ipsos MORI longitudinal survey, who had become more positive about immigration, were asked for a reason, “being more aware of positive contributions now,” ranked ahead of expecting more control after Brexit – showing how different people have changed their minds for different reasons.

Few policy-makers in Europe will want to emulate how the British found catharsis in the immigration debate, but broader lessons are relevant.  Immigration debates can easily become angry and polarised – especially online – yet the majority of people are ‘Balancers’, seeing both pressures and gains of migration. Giving people a voice in how to manage immigration fairly – for those who come to our countries and the societies they join – can check populism and polarisation, if policy-makers and politicians could act on these lessons in time.

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Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future