In EU elections, far-right talks up migration. But do voters care?

Rain clouds gathered over Milan’s iconic Il Duomo cathedral on Saturday as Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini took to the stage, rosary in hand, and sought to cast himself as a savior of Europe and its Judeo-Christian heritage.

Addressing thousands of supporters huddled under umbrellas, Mr. Salvini argued that his tough stance on migrants was saving lives in the Mediterranean, and that Italy’s hard line would benefit Europe as whole. “We cannot welcome the other, if we forget who we are,” he said. “To welcome he who arrives from far away, we have to be in the position to do so. … We do not want slaves. We do not want mass deportations. We do not want ghettos.”

The site was the rallying point of 11 populist European leaders, invited by Mr. Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party, to present a united front ahead of European Union parliamentary elections that begin on Thursday. Foremost among all their issues – raised in speeches delivered in heavily accented Italian or English – was the topic of immigration: specifically, stopping it.

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There is no denying that anti-migrant messages, often salted with misinformation, have helped far-right parties and politicians win seats in national elections in several European countries. That is raising concerns that such gains will be repeated at the continental level in this week’s EU elections.

But despite the volume of anti-immigration rhetoric, the latest polling data suggest the average voter has different concerns. Migration – whether defined as a concern over incoming migrants or over declining birth rates and aging populations – is an issue, but not the topic most on the minds of voters as they go to the polls. Instead, topics like the economy, Islamic radicalism, and even concerns about nationalism itself outweigh immigration for many.

‘EXTREMISTS WHO DO NOT REPRESENT US’

Among the attendees of Mr. Salvini’s rally in Milan are leaders of France’s National Rally (formerly National Front), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Geert Wilder’s Dutch Party for Freedom. The optics aim to convey unity.

Czech far-right politician Tomio Okamura, who is also attending, casts the forthcoming election as a decisive referendum on the future of European cooperation. “It is up to us to decide whether Europe shall remain European or whether people like [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, and [French President Emmanuel] Macron will be able to Islamicize Europe.”

Moments before the nationalist leaders and their supporters take over the square, a well-dressed Italian couple rushes away from the area. “We are fleeing from these far-right extremists who do not represent us,” says Alberto, putting an umbrella over Claudia, his wife.

The couple, who declined to give their last name for privacy reasons, lives and works in Munich. As economic migrants themselves, they do not rank migration as a major problem, although they acknowledge that it is a special challenge for Italy. “Instead of worrying so much about the boats that arrive in Italy, Salvini should worry about all the people who are leaving,” says Alberto.

“Salvini on his own can’t get far,” adds Claudia. “What worries me is that people are so fed up with the economic situation that there is a real chance of these populist groups gaining momentum.”

The couple’s comments hint at broader trends. Research by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) indicates that migration is seen in Italy as less of a threat than the economic crisis and trade wars or Islamic radicalism. Unemployment outranks migration among the challenges confronting the country.

Even in Spain, which last year became the main port of entry for migrants arriving from the Mediterranean, migration is not perceived as the biggest threat confronting Europe. Voters see Islamic radicals as the biggest threat to the EU, followed by the economic crisis and trade wars. Unemployment and corruption ranked as the top issues currently confronting the country – though that can still benefit the far-right.

“Spain, like Italy, is a country of strong traditions and family values, and when people feel threatened they naturally gravitate to the party that puts them first,” says Pedro Sanchez Mar, who is helping his parents sell salami at an agricultural fair in Chirivel, Spain. “In the Spanish case that is [populist upstart] VOX.”

“Many of my friends don’t understand why they need to speak English to get a job, why business is outsourced to China, or why they have to sell their goods in Germany because there is no market for them in Spain,” says Mr. Sanchez, a resident of Málaga who works part-time as a consultant for foreign companies.

MISCONCEPTIONS AND OVERESTIMATIONS

Of course, there are still plenty of Europeans who do regard migration as Europe’s foremost concern. But that can be driven by misunderstanding as much as nationalism.

In a dilapidated building in El Puerto de Santa María, Spain, neighbors gather for a workshop called “Stop Rumores,” a nonprofit, government-funded initiative focused on breaking down the stereotypes about migrants that have become the bread and butter of populist movements across Europe.

Workshop leader Daniel José Rodríguez shows a video that uses doors as a metaphor for all the worlds that can be accessed through an open mind and contact with other cultures. Some of the two dozen or so participants respond with sympathetic nods, while others simply snicker.

“Doors were built to be closed,” argues a soft-spoken older man sporting a sharp hat.

Emboldened by this act of dissent, a middle-aged woman perks up on her plastic chair and unleashes a salvo of tales of “illegal migrants” who have benefited from the Spanish welfare state to the detriment of the country’s elderly and sick citizens.

“If a migrant arrives with an earache, he comes out of the hospital fully operated, while we are on the waiting list,” she says, insisting an acquaintance who is a nurse told her it was true.

Mr. Rodriquez reminds her that social assistance programs are based on need rather than nationality, that migrants are screened for public health reasons on arrival and treated in case of emergencies, and that people who cheat the system exist everywhere.

He asks the participants to estimate how many migrants they believe to be in their region and in Spain as a whole. The vast majority overshoot their estimate by massive margins – a tendency shared by many across Europe. Many are shocked to learn that only 1% of pension recipients in Spain are foreign, and more than half of those are citizens of the EU. Data and empathy, emphasizes the trainer, are the tools to dismantle rumors, including those that have been a regular feature of political rallies across Europe.

“One of the things that frightens me is when I encounter people who will give more weight to a piece of information they read on Facebook than to official data drawn from the relevant government ministry,” he says at the end of the session. “This worries me.”

A BACKLASH AGAINST NATIONALISM?

The ECFR’s research suggests that concern that nationalism itself threatens the EU is eclipsing worries about migration in some countries. Voters see nationalism as at least as important as migration in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain. “Nationalism is especially important to voters who say they are likely to turn out at the polls,” the ECFR wrote.

The ECFR analysis of YouGov voting intention data also found that those who see migration as the priority issue are more likely to vote for far-right parties, whereas those who see radical Islam as the priority are more likely to back conservative parties.

“What we see in the data, particularly in countries like Austria and Germany, is the split between people who care about migration, simply the fear of foreigners coming, and those who are more concerned about integration and particularly the integration of Muslim migrants, the fear of radical Islam,” says Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a founding member of the ECFR board.

Even among nationalist leaders themselves, Mr. Krastev adds, there is little agreement on immigration beyond keeping new migrants out. They disagree sharply about what to do with those already on the continent. Mr. Salvini, for example, sees the redistribution of migrants as essential, but that is a no-go for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Back in rainy Milan, Oriana, a saleswoman lingering outside before the start of her shift at a clothes store, is unimpressed by what anti-immigrant consensus there is. She only hopes that the EU elections will bring results that help bring relief to the struggling Italian economy.

“We have achieved so much in terms of integration,” she says. “All this focus on migrants is putting us a step back.”

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