Budapest, Hungary – Central European countries aren’t worried about migrants coming in. They’re scared of people going out.
According to a wide-ranging survey of attitudes and opinions, conducted in 14 EU member states by YouGov for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Europe’s southern and eastern countries, often portrayed as the most radical anti-immigration voices in the bloc, are much more worried about the impact of emigration.
On the other hand, citizens in the EU’s Western and Northern countries (particularly Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark – often portrayed as role-models of tolerant societies) rank immigration as one of the biggest challenges lying ahead.
These findings, which put in a much-needed perspective what regular headlines about the Visegrad Group might suggest, highlight Central Europe’s dramatic demographic decline, fueled by strict immigration laws, low birth rates and a strong emigration drive from younger generations – usually heading West for better jobs and higher salaries. Along with the fact that extra-EU immigrants account for a tiny fraction of Central European countries’ population, this explains why emigration, rather than immigration, is considered a key issue.
While the strongest demographic drop among EU countries was recorded in Romania (-10% of its population over the past decade), Hungary and Poland’s populations have also declined in the last ten years. Slovakia and the Czech Republic managed to experience a (meagre) demographic growth – mostly due to foreign immigrants coming in from the East (Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria…).
According to the ECFR survey, six European countries are particularly worried about a mass exodus of their population: three in the east (Romania, Hungary and Poland) and three in the South (Italy, Spain and Greece).
But contrary to their Southern counterparts, Romania, Poland and Hungary – three countries for whom the freedom of movement in the EU is one of the main benefits of European membership – are not predominantly in favour of introducing mechanisms to control and curb emigration.
Forget migration: Europeans have other fish to fry
Pro-EU parties “will be making a strategic blunder if they accept the framing of the anti-European parties that this election will be won or lost on migration alone”, said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Although nationalist governments, especially in Poland and Hungary, are attempting to turn the upcoming European elections into a referendum on migration alone, and hijack the Central European narrative on the single topic of migration, the study has the merit of showing that EU citizens have more important, domestic worries, including corruption, nationalism, terrorism, health and unemployment, housing or living costs.
In Hungary (72%) and Slovakia (68%), for instance – two of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, according to Transparency International – many people identify corruption as a major issue. Voters in Poland and Hungary also consider health, housing, unemployment and rising living costs to be of the utmost importance. In comparison, only 19% of Hungarians and 7% of Poles think of immigration as a chief issue – despite the constant fear-mongering, relentless opposition to the EU’s migration policy and deeply-rooted negative feelings about migrants, citizens of the Visegrad Group countries remain clear-headed.
The European Council on Foreign Relations survey also found that Hungary and Slovakia were among the most pessimistic nations about the strength of their national economy, and that the Czech Republic was the second most supportive country to improve the protection of the EU’s external borders, after Greece.