Berlin (CNSNews.com) – A major new poll has found a ten-year high in favorable views of the European Union, even though migration is identified as the biggest concern for European citizens, followed by climate change.
In the E.U.’s latest twice-yearly Eurobarometer survey, the number of respondents with a positive image of the E.U. reached 45 percent, its highest level in the past ten years.
Migration remains the top concern, at 34 percent – down six percent from the last poll – while climate change reached the number two spot for the first time, at 22 percent.
Not surprisingly, given its geographical location, Malta accounted for the highest concern about migration, with 63 percent of Maltese respondents expressing that view. Next up were the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovenia (53 percent each), and the Netherlands (50 percent).
Petra Bendel, chair of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, a non-partisan advisory council, attributed the fact migration is of greater concern than other key issues like climate change to politicians and media coverage.
“In several member-states the issue is being strongly politicized and even scandalized by, mostly right-wing parties,” she said. “Populists especially tend to willfully describe migrants as ‘irregular,’ often evoking feelings of threat.”
Bendel noted that the countries whose respondents expressed most concern about migration were not among those with the largest number of asylum-seekers. (Three-quarters of asylum-seekers last year sought refuge in Germany, France, Greece, Italy and Spain.)
She also pointed out that the number of E.U. citizens concerned about migration has been dropping steadily in the biannual survey since 2015, corresponding with decreasing migrant flows. In 2015, the number had stood at 58 percent.
“When it comes to any political issue, visibility matters, and the weather is much less meaningful than changes where people live and work, especially if those changes are viewed as negative,” said Matt Pinsker, an international law professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“For many Europeans, climate change is a mere statistic they’ve read about, while migration is far more visible with a more noticeable impact their everyday life,” he said.
E.U. leaders have been grappling to find consensus on migration policy amid deep divisions over how migrants arriving in Europe – mostly via the Mediterranean route from North Africa – should be distributed. Eastern member states-such as Hungary and Poland have steadfastly refused to accept quotas.
Under the E.U.’s “Dublin Regulation,” asylum-seekers’ applications must be processed at the first point-of-entry into the E.U. – except in special circumstances or if a deal can be struck with another member-state.
Italy, one of the countries most heavily affected by migrants arriving by boat, has repeatedly called on the E.U. to amend the Dublin Regulation, and late last year Italy’s populist government closed its ports to boats operated by non-governmental organizations that rescue migrants at sea.
The recently-elected head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen – a former German defense minister who will take up her new post in November – has said she aims to build a more unified E.U. foreign policy.
“I want to propose a new pact for migration and asylum,” she said prior to a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Friday. “We need a new solution.”
“It is necessary to review the concept of distribution of responsibilities,” said von der Leyen, while acknowledging that Italy, as well as Spain and Greece, were “geographically exposed.”
Speaking at the meeting, Conte said the Dublin rule was outdated. “We cannot think the problem is just for those countries where migrants first land,” he said.
At a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers a fortnight ago, 14 member-states agreed on a draft Franco-German proposal to deal with migration, with a meeting to discuss further planned in early September.
Migration expert Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank, told Germany’s dpa news agency that while the E.U. was working towards solutions, progress is “way too slow.”
Speeding up asylum processes and deportations would make Europe less attractive to many migrants, he said.