Transnational and domestic conflicts in asylum policies: preferences among the European publics

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While the problem pressure of the refugee crisis on the EU and its members has been arguably less intense since the height of the crisis in 2015-2016, the conflicts within and between member states in terms of asylum policy are hardly less important, especially since the policy solutions brought up during the crisis were partial at best. In a working paper published by the Migration Policy Centre, we set out to map public preferences in the domain of asylum policy in order to explore the various lines of conflict and their intensity in the aftermath of the refugee crisis. Generally, our results show that the conflict potentials of immigration policies, rather than being fully mobilised or alleviated, are still large and have markedly increased, especially in the destination states of northwestern Europe over the last few years, with implications for the options available to policy makers.

In order to explore conflicts in asylum policy preferences, we utilised an original cross-national survey run within the framework of the ERC Synergy Project SOLID fielded in 16 EU member states, in June-July 2021, on a total of 13,095 respondents. This data enabled us to map citizens’ positions regarding all the major asylum-related policies that have been proposed or adopted during the different phases of the refugee crisis. In studying these preferences, we took as a starting point the EU polity’s two-level structure which creates two potential lines of conflict: a vertical one, focused on the powers of the polity centre vis-à-vis those of the member states, and a horizontal one, revolving around the specific interests of the member states (Kriesi, Ferrera, and Schelkle 2021). In other words, we expected diverging preferences at both levels, as the European integration process does not only pit countries against the EU and each other, but also citizens with diverging views of this process against each other within each country.

Transnational lines of conflict

In terms of transnational conflicts, we found that most of the conflicts among the citizen publics are being structured around the relocation of asylum applicants debate (involving quotas or compensation), while other policies involving external or internal bordering (such as the EBCG and general border closures) or externalisation (such as the EU-Turkey deal) are comparatively less polarising. Moreover, we find that the opposition between the frontline states (Greece and Italy), on the one hand, and the Visegrad 4 countries, on the other hand, persists in the aftermath of the crisis. The contrasting stances of policymakers from these countries during the refugee crisis is still reflected in their voters’ positions.

Domestic lines of conflict 

At the domestic level, we found strong polarisation between the supporters and opponents of migration, politically articulated by the radical right and some nationalist-conservative parties on the one side, and by the left and some mainstream right parties on the other side. Furthermore, conflicts surrounding asylum policy are even more intense at the domestic level than at the transnational one. In other words, the differences in policy preferences between supporters and opponents of immigration are higher than the differences between countries’ general citizens’ positions. When analysing the combined transnational and domestic conflict configuration, our analysis reveals that transnational conflicts are ultimately rooted in member states’ domestic conflict structures, where the opponents of immigration constitute the critical factor.

Overall, these findings further underline that it is the opponents to immigration who will be decisive for some policy options in EU member states: they oppose relocation quotas and, in frontline states, the Dublin regulation, which creates potential obstacles for these solutions. Given that they constitute large minorities or even a plurality in many countries – above all in transit states, in Latvia, Greece, and France, but also in ‘open destination states’ such as Sweden and the Netherlands (which have accommodated large numbers of refugees in absolute and relative terms)—the governments of the respective member states are legitimately opposing these policy proposals. By contrast, the opponents to immigration are much more favourably disposed to externalisation and internal and external border controls. While the pro-immigration groups are not as supportive of the latter policies, they are not clearly opposed to them, which makes this type of solution potentially more consensual.

The policy implications of conflicts in asylum policy preferences  

The implications for European policymakers in the domain of asylum policy are quite clear. The conflict potentials of immigration policies have not yet been fully mobilised. This means that policymakers are facing very strong constraints in terms of what is possible in this policy domain. As long as the critical underlying attitudinal potentials are not fully mobilised and as long as the parties mobilising the opponents to immigration do not constitute the dominant coalition partner in government, joint solutions at the European level remain possible even in the most contested policy domains. However, when opponents to immigration become dominant in a given country and the parties mobilising them become the dominant coalition partner or the exclusive governing party, as has been the case in Hungary and Poland (and other central and eastern European member states), the respective member states can legitimately prevent joint solutions, even if such solutions are supported by most of the other member states and, above all, by frontline states.

Given this state of affairs, relocation schemes are not a politically feasible option today. The Dublin regulation benefits from the fact that the voters even in the frontline states do not seem to be aware of what this policy exactly implies. However, voters in frontline states are well aware that their burden is not sufficiently shared by the other member states. Finally, the more restrictive policies of border control and externalisation receive more support. Externalisation policies are least contested.