Economic anxiety and lower incomes are associated with greater opposition to multi-ethnic immigration in Europe

There’s a raging debate about whether the rise of nativist and racist ideas has anything to do with economic anxiety. At least in Europe there appears to be an association. In the first section I’ll discuss the empirical evidence for this claim, in the in the second I’ll grapple with the political consequences.


In the European Social Survey, a survey of over 55,000 people from over 30 countries in Europe, there is an undeniable correlation between economic stress and opposition to immigration.

See, for example, the graph below. The Y Axis is the percentage saying that they want no immigrants from outside the majority ethnic group in the country. The X axis is degree of economic anxiety.

It’s not just about feelings of economic anxiety with no basis in reality either. Being poorer is associated with a greater likelihood of not wanting immigrants from outside the majority ethnic group:

The Y axis, in case you can’t read it, is again the percentage who want no immigrants from outside the majority ethnic group. As you can see, those in the poorest decile of income are over three times more likely to support this position than those from the richest decile.

Clearly then (barring massive errors in the survey), at least in Europe, those with less income and those perceiving themselves as under financial stress are more likely to oppose racially and ethnically diverse immigration. We can’t know what the causal connection here is, but the statistical link is important regardless.

An aside on inequality level and the Gini Index

Inequality, in addition to absolute economic situation, may play a role. At a country level, there is evidence for a association between inequality and rejection of immigration among European countries (R=.62), but only when we exclude two truly massive outliers- the Czech Republic, and Hungary, which are roughly three times more anti-immigrants from different ethnicities than we would expect based on their level of inequality. I’ll leave the call as to whether or not it’s fair to classify these as outliers to the reader:

Another way to look at this is that in countries which weren’t communist before the fall of the Soviet Union, there is a reliable relationship between anti-immigrant sentiment and inequality. Here’s the graph with Hungary and the Czech Republic excluded:



Thus, despite frequent blithe dismissals, there is an association between economic anxiety and racist attitudes towards immigration in Europe. Our task is to insist that it is possible, and indeed politically and morally necessary, to refuse to compromise our support either for ethnically diverse immigrants or for poorer citizens, even as we face with sober senses the reality that a section of low income workers are opposed to immigration.

In order to do so we must not respond primarily with moralism, although we certainly must make a moral case in part. Rather we need to argue clearly that it is not immigrants who threaten livelihoods, but the current economic order of things, and that changing this requires building as large a coalition as possible- something which is impossible if ethnic tensions divide the working class.

We must be very clear that the whole working class, regardless of race or citizenship status, benefits from political unity with immigrants. We must make this case to the whole of the working class, not in the spirit of a know-it-all-preacher, but in the spirit of growing together.

Partly, that means challenging supposedly left-wing ideas that citizenship and borders are a kind of privilege or special advantage for white members of the working class. Rather we must point to the ways in which the divisions of citizenship, borders and racism are weaponized against the whole of the working class.

The argument is difficult to make, it faces opposition from both the left and the right, but ultimately it has to be made as a precondition to working class power and organisation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s