Research on European attitudes helps explain halt of the populist surge


A SURGE in support for populist politics was supposed to be the story of the European Elections, but it hasn’t happened.

Instead we’ve seen the emergence of a more complex picture, including the growth of the Green movement.

But there are other factors that may have fed into a blunting of populism across Europe, despite high polling in France, Hungary, Poland and Italy.

SCI's ongoing research into European attitudes has revealed that economic pressures and healthcare are the most prominent concerns for the public.

This comes against the populist focus on immigration.

The analysis is part of ongoing research by the Social Change Initiative (SCI) which works with partners across Europe to examine attitudes on migration.

The extensive research included questions on the issues of greatest concern to the public, revealing that pressures over unemployment, the economy, poverty and healthcare came out on top, while the experiences of terrorism in France saw it feature prominently there.

None of the research – carried out so far in Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Greece and the Republic of Ireland – identified immigration as the main public concern in any of the countries.

This is despite the major political focus on the issue since the global refugee emergency reached Europe’s shores in 2015.

SCI Deputy Director Padraic Quirk said: “Our ongoing work with our colleagues is aimed at building an international picture of the mood across Europe and it is clear that the issues which the public want politicians to prioritise are the economy and the provision of public services such as healthcare.

“It is important to engage with people who have legitimate concerns about immigration, but we must recognise that while it is often presented as the main issue for the public as a whole that is not borne out by the facts.”


The outcome of the elections to the European Parliament suggest the much-hyped onward march of populism across the European Union (EU) has stalled, even though major threats to progressive politics remain in place.

The National Rally Party of Marine Le Pen won out in France, securing 23.3% support against the 22.4% for the movement led by President Emmnauel Macron, but Le Pen’s result was down on 2014.

In Italy the right-wing anti-immigration League of Matteo Salvini came top with 34%, but it faces a struggle over how to handle the country’s economic difficulties.

The Law and Justice party topped the poll in Poland but other populists in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands lost support, or failed to make the gains that might once have been expected.

On the Brexit front, the UK’s Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage polled strongly with 31.7%, but it was outpolled by Pro-Remain parties.

However, Farage’s similar success in 2014 as leader of UKIP spooked the governing Conservative Party and helped lead to the UK’s 2016 referendum on leaving the EU.

Time will tell if Farage can again succeed in pushing the Conservative party further on Europe, and force a ‘hard Brexit’.


The big picture in the new European Parliament is a fragmented one, where the traditional centre-left and centre-right have lost their majority, which may provide opportunities for the invigorated liberals and Greens.

The populist far right remains a strong presence, but has arguably consolidated substantially in some countries, while stalling in others.

The development raises questions about the position of immigration as a political issue.

In the attitudinal surveys supported by SCI, interviewees in each country were given a list of issues of concern, including immigration, from which they were asked to choose their top priorities.

Only 21.9% of people questioned across the six countries ranked immigration among their top three issues of concern.

The first phase of the ongoing research was published in 2017. The latest, released this month, centred on attitudes in Greece.

The new international comparisons are drawn from the continuing research which uses segmented opinion polling to identify priorities among the various sections of society in each country.

The studies conducted so far across six major European countries found that only 19.8% of people polled held closed or hardline attitudes to migration, while 26.7% were open to the issue. A further combined figure of 52.5% of interviewees across the six countries fell into the middle category of people with mixed attitudes on migration.

The research shows strong sentiments of compassion and humanity.

For example, in the Republic of Ireland 70% of people agreed that if they were a refugee they would want Ireland to offer them refuge.

In Greece, the analysis found that 64% of those polled believed Greece should help provide for people entering Europe as migrants.

Huge work still has to be done to oppose the divisive populist politics.

But the attitudinal research and the election results show that Europeans hold a varying range of concerns and priorities.

We can now add climate change as a big ticket item on that list.

But, crucially, voters are turning to a wider than ever range of parties in search of solutions.

Most are not opting for the easy answers of populism.