Pro-Europeans and Anti-Immigrants


In many member-states of the European Union (EU), anti-immigrant and anti-European attitudes of public opinion “go hand in hand.” In Greece, however, this is not the case. Why does this happen?


In recent decades, immigration has emerged as a critical issue for European elections, while at the national level, it is an issue capable of overthrowing governments. Public opinion surveys observe a long-term statistical correlation between negative attitudes towards the EU and immigration. Simply put, if someone expresses negative feelings towards immigration, they are very likely to be negative towards the EU, and vice versa. These negative attitudes, among other things, are associated with voting support over the corresponding (often far-right) parties that advocate them more effectively in the political arena, as the literature tells us. There are many cases to mention: from the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, and the UK Independence Party in the UK, to the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Northern League in Italy. We would expect this almost symbiotic relationship between anti-immigration and anti-Europeanism (and ultimately far-right voting) to apply in the Greek case as well. After all, our country was called upon in 2015 to bear a disproportionate burden concerning the management of the influx of more than one million asylum seekers, concurrently with the Eurozone crisis. However, this relationship does not seem to apply. On the contrary, in Greece, we observe a statistical correlation between anti-immigrant and pro-European attitudes.


The statistical correlation between anti-immigrant attitudes and Euroscepticism began to be observed towards the end of the 1990s, coinciding with significant historical developments both for immigration and for European integration. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, the end of communist regimes, and the civil wars that followed in our neighborhood marked a significant, and in a short period of time, movement of populations towards EU member-states. At the same time, during the same decade, pivotal agreements were signed for the future of the EU: the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the Schengen Agreement and Convention (1990 and 1995), and the Amsterdam Treaty (1997). The common denominator of all these agreements is the transfer of part of national sovereignty to a series of policy areas, from Foreign and Monetary Policy to Security Policy and Migration and Asylum Policies. Within this framework, both anti-immigrant and anti-European attitudes show an increase, and their correlation begins to be forged in the public sphere. However, things are a little different in Greece.


Since the country’s accession to the EU in 1981, Greeks have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the idea of European integration. Specifically, their positive responses to the two constant questions of the Eurobarometer (i.e. regarding whether Greece’s accession to the EU is “a good thing” and whether their country has benefited from it) were significantly higher than those of other EU citizens. Perceptions that the EU is “a good thing” and that “Greece has benefited from accession” showed their highest rates during the period of 2002-2004, in the aftermath of the country’s accession to the Eurozone, while preparing itself to host the Olympic Games. However, shortly after the onset of the economic crisis, attitudes became strongly negative. At the peak of the crisis in 2013, about half of Greeks had a negative view, compared to about 28% of EU citizens. From 2017 onwards, support for the EU began to significantly recover, although still below pre-crisis levels, with over half of Greeks considering the country to have benefited from its accession to the EU.


At the same time, Greeks have historically been among the most vehement opponents of immigration in Europe. Specifically, their responses to the consistent question of the European Social Survey (ESS) (i.e. regarding whether Greece is becoming a better or worse place to live with the arrival of people from other countries) rank Greece at the top of the list of countries with the most negative attitudes for most years for which data exist (i.e. 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2010). However, in 2020, Greece ranked 5th out of 22 countries, with their negative responses showing a decline, likely due to the pandemic and mobility restrictions leading to a significant decrease in migration globally.

In 2022, the Greek Politics Specialist Group (GPSG) conducted a study on behalf of diANEOsis regarding Greeks’ attitudes towards the EU and European integration, as well as the predictive indicators of these attitudes, with particular emphasis on youth. Among our many interesting findings, what caught my curiosity and prompted this article is that unlike Great Britain, for example, where anti-immigrant attitudes fueled Brexit, those harboring negative stereotypes about immigrants in Greece are more, not less, positively disposed towards the country’s EU membership and European integration. Specifically, those who view immigrants as a cause of increased crime are quite likely to support both Greece’s continued EU membership and further European integration.

One of the main reasons this may occur relates to how the public discourse around the EU and immigration has been structured in Greece over the past decades. Since the country’s accession to the EU, almost all governments have had a clear pro-European orientation. On the other hand, almost all of them have regarded immigration primarily as a “problem” or “threat.” However, unlike many EU countries, no Greek political party, not even the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, has attempted to hold the EU responsible for exacerbating the immigration “problem/threat.” In the Greek public sphere, this responsibility is usually shifted to Turkey which exploits immigration. Conversely, at the core of the EU, Turkey is considered an essential partner in “addressing migration,” as clearly demonstrated by the EU-Turkey Agreement of 2016.


Furthermore, since the mid-2000s, successive Greek governments have emphasized that migration is a collective/European “problem/threat” that requires pan-European response. However, to be properly addressed, it requires a revision of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) that was born out of the processes of European integration. All Greek governments of the last two decades argue that the CEAS is not based on the principle of fair burden-sharing. Specifically, they maintain that the Dublin Regulation produces an extremely uneven distribution of burdens between the “frontline” EU member-states at the external borders, such as Greece, and those within the European mainland.

To conclude with, unlike many EU member-states, where European integration is presented in the public sphere as the “cause” of the domestic migration “problem/threat” and Turkey as a necessary part of the “solution,” in Greece, blame is shifted towards Turkey, while both EU membership and European integration process are considered necessary parts of the “solution.” Part of this narrative, therefore, is reflected in the correlation between anti-migration and pro-European attitudes observed at the level of Greek public opinion.

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