European Union

‘Refugees Welcome’ and the myth of two Europes

Media coverage of the refugee crisis has been driven by polemic. New research shows that public attitudes are in fact ambiguous, much less black and white than has often been supposed.

Since the autumn of 2015 and the movement of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere to Europe, we’ve tended to see ourselves as a Europe of two halves. One half is progressive, open, happy to have new Europeans as personified by the Refugees Welcome movement. The other is naïve, uncaring for culture, reckless and personified by the Cologne Christmas assaults. One half cares about European values, knows our limits, wants a society that works for people here now and is personified by new, welfare state supportive but nationally-minded parties. The other is racist, xenophobic and nationalist as personified by the killings of UK MP Jo Cox and Arkadiusz Jóźwik.

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This binary of two Europes has always been a fiction, and this is confirmed by new survey results released today. With a sample of 16,000 people in eight European countries, a survey for the TransSOL project has found that, while as expected Europeans are roughly split between those who suggest admitting the same or higher numbers of Syrian refugees and those suggesting admitting lower or no refugees, the majority of people – almost 70% – lie not at the extremes, but either somewhere in the middle or are unsure of what is best. The picture is not uniform. In Denmark and the UK, for example, almost 1 in 5 people are in favour of admitting more Syrian refugees, while strong support for admitting lower numbers of Syrian refugees in Greece (almost 1 in 2) can be contextualised by the closing of the borders and the failure of Europe to implement an internal European resettlement programme.

Do East Europeans really feel less solidarity with refugees than West Europeans?

The survey also finds that attachment to the EU increases support for greater refugee presence in Europe, and, conversely, that less support for refugees is found when attachment to the EU is less. Not only does this confirm that there may indeed be a link between Eurosceptic and nationalist parties and acceptance of refugees in people’s preferences, it also indicates that there may be a possible link between the perceived successes and failures of the EU as a whole and Europeans willingness to have more refugees in their country.

Given the nuances involved this is important to understand. Not for the commonly given reason that policies should land somewhere in the centre, but because as activists and campaigners working to ensure that Europe and Europeans live up to their responsibilities to be a place of refuge from those fleeing war and persecution, we need to understand why, who and where people need to be convinced, before we think about how we can do it.

Look Beyond Borders – Refugees and Europeans

If we keep buying into the dichotomy of two Europes, we risk alienating those who could be convinced, only reinforcing those already convinced. Instead our focus should be on how we can help those in the middle to move their opinions towards a position of openness. Many Europeans are open to embracing a Willkommenskultur, but we need to get smarter at how we work with them to realise it.


More information on the survey and the full results can be found at 

Featured photo courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet on


Jackson Oldfield
Jackson Oldfield is a Senior Project Manager and researcher based in Berlin. He worked for Transparency International as a Programme Coordinator in the Middle East and North Africa department and, before that, at the Danish Institute for Human Rights on business and human rights.

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