How public discourse affects attitudes towards Freedom of Movement and Schengen

AuthorFelix Karstens
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
How public discourse
affects attitudes towards
Freedom of Movement
and Schengen
Felix Karstens
Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH
Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Regulating migration is currently one of the most salient issues in Europe. So far,
research has overlooked how this politicisation affects attitudes towards migration
regimes. This article links the literatures on public opinion and framing effects from a
comparative European perspective and presents original data from representative
EU-wide vignette experiments conducted in mid-December 2017 (N¼10.827).
I show that framing Schengen as a threat to public security or national identity weakens
support for the status quo inside Schengen and reaffirms it amongst Schengen out-
siders. Regarding Freedom of Movement only negative frames, particularly those refer-
ring to labour market risks, have a significant impact. Given the weak public support in
several EU member states, these findings have important implications for the future of
European migration regimes.
Freedom of Movement, public opinion, Schengen area, survey experiments
Border controls amongst member states and restrictions to the Freedom of
Movement seemed like a relict from the past during the last two decades of
Corresponding author:
Felix Karstens, Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich, Haldeneggsteig 4, 8006
Zurich, Switzerland.
European Union Politics
2020, Vol. 21(1) 43–63
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1465116519874880
European politics, surely to be dismantled as integration progressed. Yet, the ref-
ugee crisis and Brexit have brought the issue to the centre of current debates about
European integration. Whilst the number of people migrating from one member
state to another grew at a similar pace as in previous years and the number of non-
EU citizens entering the European Union (EU) even declined over the last months,
the corresponding public discourse in many member states seems more salient and
polarised than in previous decades of European politics. These developments
cannot be mainly attributed to ‘objective pressures’ but are driven by a logic of
political competition (Grande et al., 2019). A case in point is a state like Hungary
where the government of a member state with low immigration rates applied a
strongly Eurosceptic framing against EU migration regimes. Recent evidence from
the United Kingdom (UK) also suggests that frames could have made a difference
in the popular vote on Brexit (Goodwin et al., 2018). Given that the UK is not a
member of the Schengen area
it is hard to generalise from this single-country
study. So far, we do not know to what extent the ongoing framing contests over
migration regimes in other EU member states affect public support for the liberal
intra-EU border and labour migration regimes.
In light of the persistent asymmetry between objective migration patterns and
public discourse, this vignette study answers the question how policy frames affect
the evaluation of two of the EU’s core migration regimes: the Schengen area and
the Freedom of Movement. The analysis builds on the assumption that the ongo-
ing contestation of the current institutional framework can be best understood as a
framing contest. Currently, we have surprisingly little systematic understanding of
how particular frames affect public attitudes towards highly contested EU insti-
tutions. So far, research has mainly focused on the impact of frames on attitudes
towards migrants and the specific impact of the asylum crisis in 2015 (Harteveld
et al., 2018; McLaren et al., 2018). This, however, overlooks the crucial institu-
tional dimension, which provides the legal and political framework for intra-EU
migration and is the subject of this study. Also, a recent systematic literature
review of public opinion towards European migration finds that only 9 out of
78 studies cover more than two European countries (Eberl et al., 2018: 213).
The article therefore responds to the question whether and which particular
frames are able to shape public opinion on the Schengen area and the Freedom
of Movement and to what extent the responsiveness to frames is moderated by
Europeans’ individual characteristics. The response is based on an analysis of the
original survey experiments from December 2017, which exposed a population-
representative sample of the EU’s working age population (14–65 years) to prom-
inent frames and measured its impact on the support for liberal migration regimes.
Two main findings can be summarised. Both EU member states inside and outside
the Schengen area are internally divided about their border regime towards EU
neighbours resulting in a narrow support for the current status. The results from
the experimental study about the effectiveness of different frames applied to the open
border regime are therefore particularly insightful and relevant for policy makers.
Europeans are overall responsive to both negative security- and culture-based frames.
44 European Union Politics 21(1)

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