The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

18 Dec 2015


Politics and Society


The public has become acutely aware of changes in immigration rates and attributes these changes to the UK’s membership of the European Union. This has been a direct consequence of the growth of immigration from the EU accession countries. Inevitably, this learning process has important implications for the likelihood of an out vote in the forthcoming EU referendum.

Actual immigration rates are the key to understanding levels of concern about immigration. Below we show long-term immigration rates for non-UK citizens obtained from estimates of international migration provided by the international passenger survey.

We also present evidence on trends in concern about immigration expressed via responses to questions about what people think are the most important issues facing the country.



Immigration increased markedly at the end of the 20th century and has remained exceptionally high since. We can see a spike in concern about immigration in the 1970s when the National Front obtained some degree of political presence, even though there was no great growth in immigration itself around that time.

Far more noticeable, however, is the rise in concern that started just before the turn of the century. From this point on, concern about immigration was closely associated with immigration levels. The dip following the onset of the economic crisis in 2007-08 is unsurprising given the impact of the crisis on levels of concern about the economy, but the rising rates returned after only a short interlude.

The public appears to have become responsive to changes in immigration rates. However, overall immigration rates do not themselves have implications for attitudes towards the EU. For immigration to impact on EU attitudes people need to perceive an association between EU membership and levels of immigration. When we break down immigration into region of origin by separating Commonwealth, EU, and other sources of immigration we can see that this is indeed what seems to have happened.


EU immigration played no part in the rising immigration of the late 1990s and early 2000s – this was produced by an increase in asylum-seekers from other parts of the world. EU immigration takes off with the 2004 accession of former communist-bloc countries of eastern Europe into the EU and the government’s decision not to restrict immigration from these countries during the first five years of EU membership. After 2004, however, EU immigration formed a major component of immigration into Britain. By 2013 it was the largest component.

Did the public connect this change in the composition of immigration with their view of the EU? Recent rises in concern about immigration appear to be linked closely with trends in EU immigration and not with immigration from other sources: concern increases along with increasing EU immigration rates whereas levels of immigration from other sources are falling or flat.

In itself, however, this aggregate relationship isn’t compelling evidence that individuals are linking their attitudes to immigration with those to the EU. Fortunately, we are able to look at this relationship more closely using the CMS monthly surveys, which contain measures of both concern about immigration and attitudes towards the EU for each respondent.

We can therefore examine whether immigration concern has become linked with opposition to the EU. Below we show the difference in EU approval scores (“How much do you approve of Britain’s membership of the EU?”) between respondents who believe immigration is one of the most important issues facing the country, and those who don’t.


Difference in EU approval among people who state “immigration” as one of the most important issues facing the country and those who don’t


The difference in EU approval between people who believe immigration is an important problem facing the country and those who do not widens sharply during the years following the 2004 accession before flattening off during the economic crisis, only to steeply rise shortly afterwards as EU immigration rates also shoot upwards.

Clearly, the link between concern about immigration and a negative view of the EU has strengthened considerably in the years following the opening of access to immigrants from the 2004 accession countries.

The relevance of this relationship for the forthcoming EU referendum is inescapable. Below we show the connection between believing that “too many immigrants have been let into Britain” and EU referendum vote intention. We also illustrate the significance of this relationship by comparing it with the 1975 EU referendum.


In 2015 only 10% of people who do not believe too many immigrants have been let into the country would vote to leave the EU. But no less than 50% of those who believe too many immigrants have been let in would do so. In 1975 there was no significant relationship between immigration and EU referendum voting. If anything, the relationship was the reverse.

The relationship between anti-immigration attitudes and opposition to the EU has strengthened greatly in recent years, in direct response to the dramatic growth in immigration from, specifically, the 2004 EU accession countries.

Recent immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is likewise accompanied by a markedly increased level of concern about immigration. This spiral of alarm and negativity will clearly have an influence on the outcome of the EU referendum vote.

This piece is by Geoffrey Evans professor at the University of Oxford and fellow of Nuffield College and Jonathan Mellon research fellow at Nuffield College was co-published with The Guardian.


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