Norms and Values in the European Migration and Refugee Crisis

NoVaMigra has summarized its main findings and recommendations in a comprehensive Final Report Norms and Values in the European Migration and Refugee Crisis. See here for the full report.

Key Findings
Policy Recommendations
Key Findings

Have values changed after the 2015 “refugee crisis”?

At the level of individual attitudes, there is no sign that immigration is perceived more negatively since the “refugee crisis”. In fact, many member states register markedly more positive attitudes. However, attitudes have polarized across member states.

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Read over a medium-term period, the available data show consistency. In fact, both Eurobarometer (see figure 1 below) and European Social Survey data indicate that individual attitudes towards non-EU migrants in the EU have become more positive over time (Heath and Richards 2019). However, attitudes towards immigrants have polarised across member states (see figure 2 below; see also the discussion in Ray, Pugliese and Esipova 2017).

Figure 1. Share of respondents indicating that immigration of people from outside the EU evokes a “very positive” or “fairly positive” feeling for them. Source: Eurobarometer.

Polarisation has been most pronounced on questions of immigration from poorer countries and on asylum, and it spiked in the wake of the 2015 and 2016 “refugee crisis”. Nevertheless, the negative changes in attitudes in some member states have been found to be relatively modest, in the sense that – with a few notable exceptions – they do not appear to have had a lasting impact on the trend towards more positive overall views on immigration (see the discussion in Heath and Richards 2019).

Figure 2. Polarization across member states on whether communities are a good place for immigrants. Share of positive replies to the question ‘Is the city or area where you live a good place for immigrants from other countries?’. Source: Gallup World Poll 2018.

Conclusion 1:
Although there is no indication that values have changed at the level of individual attitudes, we observe that the idea of “European values” has grown more salient in public discourse. At the same time, interpretations of what these values mean are drifting apart. Actors invoke the same values to justify an increasingly incompatible range of policies.

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In European migration and refugee policy, NoVaMigra’s research found that the values referred to by EU institutions involved in migration policy largely remained constant from 2014–2017. The main values cited in the official documents were solidarity, responsibility-sharing, saving lives at sea, human rights and protecting freedom of movement within the Schengen Area. These values have been linked to the EU’s human rights framework and the EU’s obligations under international law and, in this sense, have served as categorical restraints for policymaking.

However, invoking values often seemed to carry meanings that went beyond merely referencing the applicable legal commitments – to the extent that EU institutions sometimes cited values to justify policies that stretched or bypassed legal commitments. An example of this is institutions invoking a commitment to saving lives at sea to justify a migration partnership with Libya, the overarching aim of which was the deterrence of migrants from European shores. In spite of their conceptual vagueness, we found that very few EU institutions attempted to define the values to which they referred.

The conceptual vagueness of values leaves considerable room for diverging interpretations. The range of interpretations put forward by institutions in migration policy has widened since 2015. Solidarity can again serve as an example. While this value has gained in salience in migration discourses across EU institutions and member states, its interpretations drift apart, ranging from an insistence on implementing a binding refugee relocation scheme to a justification of financial alternatives and various opt-out mechanisms.

The more frequent, but increasingly flexible use of values in public discourse is also observable in the area of European integration policy. The idea of conveying values to newcomers as part of civic integration courses has become more important in many member states’ integration agendas in the wake of the “refugee crisis”. Surveying state-issued orientation materials for civic integration materials in five member states, NoVaMigra found that the rights and duties associated with specific values differ significantly. Some documents largely restrict themselves to informing about applicable norms and conventions. Others make it explicit that they seek a normative commitment from their readers. While some documents suggest that a commitment to legal norms is sufficient, others go further and indicate that addressees should arrange their way of life in line with specific values.

However, the documents are often unspecific when they refer to norms and values. Many use the terms “values”, “norms” and “principles” interchangeably and leave implicit what duties they associate with them. Here, we see room for improvement. In order to enable a more reasonable dialogue about the commitments expected from newcomers in the process of civic integration, civic orientation courses and materials should make explicit whether they refer to legal norms, moral norms, social conventions or values in the strict sense. This should also be reflected in the teaching methods for integration course lessons (see also the policy recommendations).


Conclusion 2:
The ambivalence in the EU’s public discourse about what the Union’s core norms and values imply with regard to migration leaves room for interpretations that are incompatible with the EU’s human rights framework and its commitments under international law.

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In public discourse, it is often not clear what the EU’s core norms and values are and what they imply, especially when it comes to the question of migration. This leaves room for abuse – among other things, by giving right-wing populists the opportunity to frame the EU’s commitment to cosmopolitan norms as standing in opposition to the preservation of national values.

Recently, EU policy makers have reacted to the populist challenge by re-framing the EU’s core commitments in terms of “European values” or a “European way of life” in need of protection against both internal and external threats (see Mission Letter: Margaritis Schinas – President for
Promoting our European Way of Life
, 2019). However, framing the EU’s core commitments in terms of values poses new problems to the legitimacy of the EU.

NoVaMigra’s analysis shows that expressing normative commitments in terms of “values” is conceptually vague and leaves considerably more scope for interpretation than the ideas of norms, principles or (human) rights. It is not inconsistent for actors to hold many values at the same time and to want to realise them to varying, more minimal or maximal, degrees. Moreover, values are often understood as relative to individuals and contexts, grounding duties towards particular individuals or particular groups only – the ambivalent connotations of the idea of “European values” can be seen as a case in point.

For the internal dimension of European migration and refugee policy, this implies that increasing the appeal of policies by justifying them in terms of Europe’s common values is likely to prove unsuccessful, since member states can rightly claim that they understand or rank these values differently. Although references to norms, principles or (human) rights are also open to local contextualisation, they cannot be relativized in the same way.

Framing European migration and refugee policy in terms of “European values” also has consequences for the external dimension of European migration and refugee policy. With regard to immigration, it opens up the possibility to present adherence to specific values as conditions for admission for immigrants, including refugees. This risks relativizing the EU’s obligation to respect immigrants’ human rights by linking it to concerns about the protection of Europe’s cultural identity. If the EU is to live up to its cosmopolitan commitments to human rights, it is important that these issues stay separate. A European migration and refugee policy that is based on a commitment to protect and promote “European values” also threatens to undermine the EU’s credibility in the eyes of third countries, as it can be interpreted in a way that relativizes the EU’s commitments under international law.


Download the comprehensive NoVaMigra Final Report here


NoVaMigra has summarized its main findings and recommendations in a comprehensive Final Report Norms and Values in the European Migration and Refugee Crisis. See here for the full report.

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