Public opinion on immigration: Has the recession changed minds?

Timothy J Hatton, 7 June 2014



The age of economic austerity since the Global Financial Crisis has intensified the political debate over immigration. Across most of Europe, right-wing populist parties have gained support with anti-immigration policy platforms (Boeri 2009). The results of the recent elections for the European Parliament are seen by some as driven partly by growing anti-immigration sentiment. While the recession has evidently provided a justification for political pandering to anti-immigration opinion, it is far from clear how far public opinion has actually shifted in that direction, or exactly why.

Nevertheless, it is widely believed that in severe recessions public opinion becomes more negative towards immigration. Slack labour markets and pressure on the public purse are among the reasons invoked to explain it. Yet the literature on attitudes towards immigration has failed to measure these effects. One reason is that most studies are based on cross-sections of individuals in one or more countries. So they tell us which types of people are for or against immigration, but not how macro shocks shift those opinions.

Immigration attitudes in Europe

In a recent paper (Hatton 2014), I examine opinions in the European Social Survey on individuals in 20 countries observed every two years from 2002 to 2012. This presents a good opportunity to assess the economic forces that drive opinion on immigration – not least because the severity of the recession has varied widely across European countries.

The European Social Survey records the opinions of a representative sample of individuals (not the same individuals in each round). Since 2002 it has asked the same six questions in each round, so the results are comparable across years. Here I focus on one of those questions: “Would you say it is generally bad or good for (your country’s) economy that people come to live here from other countries?” The responses are recorded on a scale of 0 (very bad) to 10 (very good).

Table 1. Average opinion by country (2002–2012 average)

Source: European Social Survey.
Note: The figure in parentheses is the number of rounds for which the survey was undertaken.

As Table 1 shows, the average scores cluster around the middle of the range, with Greece exhibiting the most negative opinion and Sweden the most positive. But this takes no account of different types of person or of changes in the average from year to year. To adjust for these, for each country, I run a regression of opinion on individual characteristics (such as age, sex, education, and ethnic minority status) and – most importantly – on the year of the survey.

The country-average composition-adjusted year effects are shown for each country in Figure 1, where the distance between the gridlines is one unit on the opinion scale. Two features stand out.

The first is that the shifts in opinion have been remarkably mild. Between 2006 and 2010 (before and after the crisis) there has been very little downward shift average opinion.

Figure 1. Shifts in immigration opinion by country

But, second, there has been a marked downturn in some countries, notably Spain, Greece, and Ireland – countries that suffered the deepest recessions. Over the longer run, the trend is mildly upward in some countries and mildly downward in others.

Can these shifts be related to the recession, and if so to which macroeconomic variables? In Hatton (2014), I estimate country-level regressions on the data points displayed in Figure 1. The percentage foreign-born, the unemployment rate, and the share of social benefits in GDP all have the expected negative effects. The last of these has been a focus of recent debate, and a similar result is obtained if, instead, the fiscal deficit is used (it is difficult to distinguish between these two effects). So the recession did have distinct effects on immigration opinion, but in most countries these effects are small.

Three questions arise. First, have shifts in opinion been concentrated among certain types of people? I find that there are some differences between people with more or less education, with milder effects among the latter. But between males/females, old/young, workers/non-workers, and ethnic minorities/non-ethnic minorities, there is no difference. So, to the extent that the recession changed minds, it did so across the board.

Second, does the result depend on the question asked? In Hatton (2014), I analyse all six questions in the European Social Survey. Questions about whether the respondent would like to see more or less immigration produce results similar to those in Table 1, except that only the percentage of immigrants and social benefits matter; the unemployment rate does not. Responses to other questions on the broader cultural effects of immigration produce weaker results.

Third, how is immigration opinion related to other attitudes? Among those attitudes, trust in politicians and satisfaction with the government are related to opinion on immigration, but largely because these opinions have also been shifted a little by the recession. And although there has been some shift towards the right in people’s self-placement on the left-right political spectrum, this has not been associated with negative shifts in opinion towards immigration.


The results reported here provide some background to the recent boom in support for populist right-wing parties. Although an anti-immigrant stance is one thing that such parties have in common, this trend does not seem to have been driven to any great extent by a Europe-wide surge in anti-immigration opinion. Rather, by combining or conflating their euro-sceptic and anti-bailout platforms with a broad anti-immigrant stance, such parties seem to have found a combination that taps into a segment of pre-existing attitudes.


Boeri, Tito (2009), “It is migration, stupid”,, 23 June.

Hatton, T J (2014), “Public Opinion on Immigration: Has the Recession Changed Minds?”, CEPR Discussion Paper 10008.

Topics: Migration, Politics and economics
Tags: democracy, European parliament, immigration, politics, populism

Timothy J Hatton
Professor of Economics, Australian National University and University of Essex; and Research Fellow, CEPR