The FINANCIAL -- Worries about terrorism and immigration levels fueled the rise of nationalist parties that shook up European politics in 2016.
Across 14 European countries that Gallup surveyed last year, a median of 66% of residents say acts of terrorism by non-residents are a serious problem in their country, and 64% say the same about resident-perpetrated terrorist acts. Concerns about immigration levels are less common: A median of 55% of residents say current immigration levels are a serious problem in their countries.
Debate within the European Union has been growing in recent weeks about badly needed reforms to the bloc's asylum policy. The EU's governing body wants most member states to accept more refugees to take some of the burden off front-line countries such as Malta, Greece and Italy. However, this idea has been met at times with resistance or outright refusal, with some leaders voicing the fear that -- as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban put it -- migration is a "Trojan horse" for terrorists seeking entry into the EU, according to Gallup.
The threat of terrorism may be linked -- at least in the public's mind -- to public support for anti-immigration policies. The percentage of residents who say their country's level of immigration is a "serious problem" varies widely, from 86% in Malta, where it outweighs concerns about terrorism, to 18% in Iceland. Residents' tendency to view immigration as a serious problem in their country rises with their likelihood to describe terrorist attacks -- by either residents or non-residents -- the same way, even though some of the recent attacks in Europe have been carried out by native-born residents rather than recent migrants.
At the respondent level among the 14 countries studied, the relationship between concerns about immigration and terrorism is statistically independent of individuals' feelings about racial and ethnic minorities in their communities. In other words, the tendency to respond similarly to questions about whether immigration and terrorism are serious problems is the same regardless of whether or not they appear tolerant of minorities in their areas.
As EU members debate reforms to the union's asylum policy, they should at least acknowledge the connection between immigration and terrorism in many residents' minds, while also seeking to inform themselves and their constituents with accurate information.
Terrorism fears have fueled the rise of reactionary nationalist parties across Europe in recent years, posing a threat to European integration and in many cases leading to heightened anti-Muslim sentiment. However, research in behavioral economics has shown that the high-profile nature of terrorist attacks often leads individuals to overestimate the threat that they represent, thanks to a psychological bias known as the availability heuristic. For EU policymakers, the result may be fear-based decisions that lead to further divisiveness and instability in the face of challenges that make solidarity more important than ever.