The EU's Other Migration Problem

Brain Drain in Central and Eastern Europe

A general view of Riga Old City, May 4, 2011. Ints Kalnins / Reuters

As Western Europe continues to grapple with an influx of immigrants and refugees, its central and eastern European neighbors are dealing with the opposite problem: keeping citizens from leaving. As their best and brightest flock westward to settle in the European Union’s wealthier states, eastern nations have seen economic malaise and steep population declines. In turn, anti-emigration sentiment has gained steam. In late October, Lithuania elected a fringe anti-emigration party, the Farmers and Greens Union, to head its parliament.

That result should not have been surprising. The country had seen around ten percent of its population leave since it joined the European Union in 2004. Weeks before, the Visegrad group of central European nations—Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—convened a summit to call for more action to prevent the emigration of younger citizens. And over the summer, Latvia launched a campaign to lure its diaspora home, using the tagline “I want you back.” It joins Poland, which developed a “Return” program, offering housing, employment, and health-care assistance to homecomers, while Hungary promised free flights and cash to woo its departed.

Since the early 1990s, some 20 million of central and eastern Europe’s most talented workers have left. And they have largely headed for Western Europe—pulled by its prosperity, pushed by stagnant postcommunist economies at home, and assisted by the EU’s open border policy. But mass migration has not only energized anti-immigrant and anti-EU groups in the West, it has also hollowed out the economies of eastern European periphery.

Europe’s emigration crisis is driven, in part, by Brussels’ ideological attachment to the free movement of labor—along with its goal to liberalize a diverse continent with a single market approach. But, given that February of this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, the pact that created the single market, the downsides of a one-size-fits-all strategy are becoming all too apparent.

As European borders fell away with the EU’s eastward expansion in the 2000s,

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