Why some European countries are more hostile to immigrants than others


Ethnically-based nationalism more likely to develop in countries that have lost territory or experienced conflict in the past
Published: 29Nov2017

By Katherine Gombay

  • Anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe today is influenced by a country’s past experience of war and conflict.
  • Countries with a history of war, loss of territory, sovereignty or a past of significant conflict (either external or internal) are more likely to develop a form of nationalism that is ethnically-based – i.e. based on a common language and culture as well as on shared ethnic identity. This form of nationalism is associated with a higher degree of anti-immigrant sentiment.
  • Countries without a prior history of war, conflict or loss of territory are more likely to develop a form of civic nationalism where the state is seen as responsible for promoting welfare of all citizens equally. There is less anti-immigrant sentiment as a result.

The countries in Europe that tend to be more hostile towards immigrants today have either lost territory or sovereignty, or experienced internal conflict in the past. These prior traumatic experiences have led to the growth of a more ethnically-based nationalist narrative of “us” and “them” that makes accepting immigrants of different origins today more difficult.

A team of researchers arrived at this conclusion after looking at varying ways to explain the differing degrees of anti-immigrant sentiment in 33 European countries. Think of Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden. And then compare attitudes towards immigrants in those countries with those in Great Britain, Hungary or Greece, and you get the idea.

Searching for the source of anti-immigrant sentiment

“Whatever their focus, people who write about this subject have mainly looked at the issue through the lens of present conditions, as if national histories didn’t matter,” says Thomas Soehl, who teaches Sociology at McGill and was one of the authors of a study on the subject that was recently published in Social Forces. “What we argue is that although various contemporary factors at an individual or national level may influence anti-immigration sentiment, a country’s prior experience of internal or external conflict plays an important role in shaping the kind of nationalism which exists there. And that the style and intensity of nationalism that develops as a result influences contemporary attitudes towards immigrants.”

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by first developing a geopolitical threat score (GPT) for each of the 33 European nations they studied. The score was based on the history of internal and external conflict as well as the loss of territory or sovereignty in each country since the modern nation-state came into being. This score reflects, in other words, how much the past history was marked by traumatic losses or the realistic threat of such losses. They then looked at how the GPT score in each nation was correlated with the degree of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The ongoing influence of nationalist narratives

“It is the period since a country first appeared on modern geopolitical maps that is most influential when it comes to developing nationalist narratives,” says Andreas Wimmer, who teaches Sociology at Columbia University and is one of the authors of the study. “Using this as the starting point of collective memories we then looked at whether during, or after, the transition to the nation-state a country experienced losses of both territory and independence as well as recurrent, ongoing external and internal conflicts.”

Attitudes towards immigrants consistent over time

The researchers tested the validity of their theory by looking at attitudes towards immigrants as they were reflected in survey results from the European Social Survey over various years in the first decade of the 21st Century. The surveys included questions about people’s attitudes towards potential immigrants whose race or ethnic ancestry differed from the majority in the host country. The researchers discovered that, within each country, attitudes towards immigrants of other races and ethnic groups remained very consistent over time. More importantly, when they started looking at the way that people in differing countries responded to the survey questions about taking in immigrants of different races, they could see a clear correlation with where that country stood along the GPT scale.

“In countries with a GPT score of zero (with no loss of territory or sovereignty, or recurrent conflict in their past) we found that nearly two-thirds of the citizens would respond by being willing to allow many or some immigrants of different racial or ethnic origins,” says Wesley Hiers, who teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He adds: “At a GPT of 2, which is about average, we found that just below half of the citizens (or 48 per cent) were willing to allow many or some immigrants to come”. And at a GPT score of 6 (which is the highest threat score) the researchers found that only just over a quarter of the citizens would allow some or many immigrants into the country. “And these numbers held true,” he continues, “even once we looked at the effects of other factors, such as rural/urban divide, religiosity, level of education, levels of contemporary immigration, unemployment, and so on. All of this makes us believe that we are on the right track when we argue that past geopolitical competition and war, and losses of territory and sovereignty shape current attitudes towards immigrants in Europe. It will be important to see how well this argument travels to other contexts such as Latin America.”

Details about nation-state formation & prior experience of conflict

To read: “National Trauma and the Fear of Foreigners: How Past Geopolitical Threat Heightens Anti-Immigration Sentiment Today,” by Wesley Hiers, Thomas Soehl, and Andreas Wimmer in Social Forces


Prof. Thomas Soehl, Sociology Dept., McGill University
Thomas.soehl [at] mcgill.ca

Dr. Wesley Hiers, Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh
wjh16 [at] pitt.edu

Prof. Andreas Wimmer, Department of Sociology, Columbia University
Andreas.wimmer [at] columbia.edu

Katherine Gombay, Media and Public Relations, McGill University
Katherine.gombay [at] mcgill.ca, 514 398-2189


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