Come Home, Europeans

Europe's Brain Drain Problem Is Becoming a Major Crisis

A man walks in the passport control area at Bucharest's "Henri Coanda" International Airport Courtesy Reuters

With European policymakers still struggling to save the continent’s common currency from ruin, they must now confront what could be an even bigger economic problem. Europe’s economy is on the brink of a catastrophic skills shortage. Despite an extremely underutilized labor force, approximately 27 percent of job vacancies created each year in the major European economies go unfilled because of a lack of appropriately skilled applicants. By 2020, the continent’s digital sector alone will be short 900,000 professionals, whereas the dynamic German economy will experience a shortage of one million workers skilled in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology.

Some policymakers have acknowledged the looming problem. The outgoing European commissioner for youth and education, Androulla Vassiliou, recently stated that the skills shortage will damage “the aspirations of Europe’s young people and, ultimately, our future prosperity.” So far, however, they have chosen the wrong means for addressing it. The EU has taken steps to loosen immigration policies in order to attract skilled foreigners from around the world. But it would be far more efficient, politically and economically, for Europe to focus on reattracting talented Europeans who have left the continent to work elsewhere. Remigration -- not immigration -- should be Brussels’ top priority.

Europe is faced with a serious brain drain problem. Since the introduction of the euro, more qualified workers have left Europe than have newly arrived. In the pre-crisis years, the 15 countries that adopted the euro currency exhibited, on average, a net loss of around 120,000 postsecondary-educated workers each year. They were mainly attracted by the United States’ higher salaries, world-class universities, and efficient bureaucracy. In the years leading up to the Great Recession, from 2000 to 2008, Italy lost around 1.5 million professionals -- many of them with very advanced skills. 

The euro crisis worsened this hemorrhage of talent. In recent years, Europe has witnessed an exodus of highly qualified professionals from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain -- the countries hardest hit by the crisis -- in search of better opportunities abroad.

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