When the euro crisis ravaged Ireland's economy in 2009, Dublin promptly turned to its diaspora for help. Ireland's banking sector was close to collapse and its public finances were out of control, but Ireland's successful and patriotic expatriates were well positioned to assist. The then Prime Minister Brian Cowen gathered more than 100 leading members of the Irish diaspora in Dublin for the inaugural Global Irish Economic Forum. The goal of the conference was to use expatriates’ ideas and experience to develop measures aimed at promoting innovation, entrepreneurship, and the growth of key industries.

Seven years on, Ireland is again one of the most successful economies in the eurozone, with GDP growth at six percent, and the government has now set up Global Irish, a comprehensive campaign to engage its diaspora, which numbers around one million people, almost a sixth of Ireland's population. Its flagship event is the Global Irish Economic Forum, which gathered for the fourth time in Dublin last November. Ireland's Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said, “The Forum will provide an opportunity to look at how Ireland might develop over the next 100 years."

In no other European country has mass emigration been such an enduring and emotive phenomenon as in Ireland. But the Global Irish initiative offers useful lessons to a continent that systematically loses its intellectual and entrepreneurial stars.

For decades, Europe's leading innovators, visionary entrepreneurs, and renowned academics have crossed the Atlantic in search of more vibrant and rewarding professional environments, and the arrival of equally talented immigrants has rarely offset their departure. A transfusion of ideas from these gifted expats would reinvigorate Europe's stagnating economies and renew an inward-looking continent. Reengaging elite migrants in the political and economic life of their home countries should be a priority for European policymakers.


In terms of raw numbers, the elite brain drain is almost imperceptible. Every year, Washington grants about 15,000 O-1 visas to Europeans of extraordinary ability in the arts, science, or business, 6,000 of whom come from the United Kingdom.

But traditional migration statistics only report migrants’ educational backgrounds, without capturing their creativity or productivity. They don’t distinguish between average skilled workers and outstanding ones—those who can disrupt the economy for good, push the technology frontier outward, and create thousands of jobs. When it comes to the quality of emigration, the continent's net losses in human capital turn out to be enormous.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that on average Europe, unlike the United States, which receives more top scientists than it sends abroad, is a net contributor to the global market of leading scientists—those whose research has the most impact. Studies of the best physicists in the world show that the Europeans working in North America are some of the most renowned in their fields. In 2014, an expert panel warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the country was losing its best scientists, and a recent report from the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank, argues, “The academics who leave France for the United States are the best, the most prolific and the best integrated on an international scale.”

French economist and MIT Professor Esther Duflo, one of the elite Europeans who has left for the United States, at the Center for Global Development in 2011
French economist and MIT Professor Esther Duflo, winner of the John Bates Clark Medal for the best economist under the age of 40, at the Center for Global Development, April 2011.

Data on Nobel laureates are even more telling. Rough estimates show that around 15 percent of the prizes so far won by people working in the United States were in fact awarded to Europeans; Americans won less than one percent of the prizes granted to European countries.In the first half of the twentieth century, the United States won far fewer Nobel Prizes than Europe. Since 1980, however, the United States has won around 200 prizes, compared to about 75 awarded to France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom together.

The flight of talent involves rising academic stars as well. According to the International Monetary Fund, eight of the 25 most promising economists in the world under the age of 45 are Europeans. Six of them teach at top U.S. universities; only two have stayed in Europe. Meanwhile, none of the non-European economists on the list works in Europe. In Italy, the Carlo Alberto Medal, which is biennially awarded to outstanding Italian economists under the age of 40, was assigned five times out of the last seven to young academics teaching in elite American universities.

The departure of Europe's top minds has condemned the continent to a backseat role in global innovation and research.

Beyond academia, the situation is no rosier. First- or second-generation Europeans founded seven of the top 25 tech companies in the United States, including eBay, IBM, and Texas Instruments. Between 2006 and 2012, British, French, German, and Spanish immigrants established more than 20 percent of U.S. software start-ups. Every year, Europeans register thousands of new patents in the U.S. market. In 2013, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted licenses for about 30,000 patents to innovators from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom; these same countries awarded just 2,700 licenses to U.S. citizens. This disparity widens Europe’s innovation gap with the United States: in 2014, the European Patent Office granted around 65,000 patents in total, as opposed to the 300,000 awarded by its U.S. counterpart.


For its own good, Europe should try to lure back its self-exiled elite. In an open letter published last year in Le Monde, the heads of ten French start-ups implored France’s tech diaspora in the San Francisco Bay Area to return to Paris. But top brains need to cluster in environments where they can share ideas and work together on ambitious projects. Europe has not yet created anything comparable to Silicon Valley, and its universities struggle to compete with top U.S. schools. Because the European system thus does not allow its most talented citizens to reach their full potential, even the best-designed remigration policies will attract only the average highly qualified workers, failing to appeal to the most promising outliers. They are simply too successful abroad to return.

A woman walks past Google's European headquarters in Dublin
A woman walks past the Google offices in Dublin, July 2013.
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Instead, Europe should exploit these individuals' strong emotional attachment to their homelands to increase their engagement with their original societies. Highly motivated expats can increase the flow of knowledge, money, and innovation back home, promote the national interest internationally, connect local businesses with the global market, and help build partnerships with research centers or private companies abroad. More than a decade ago, for instance, some influential Irish Americans persuaded several U.S. multinationals to establish their European headquarters in Dublin.

The European Commission should work with national embassies to map the elite diaspora and compile detailed profiles of the skills and expertise possessed by Europe’s top brains abroad. This way, a clearer assessment of the severity of the elite brain drain itself would also be possible. In addition, the European Union should invest more resources in initiatives such as Startup Europe Comes to Silicon Valley, which sends leading European tech companies and policymakers to Silicon Valley to deepen links with the European tech diaspora.

At the national level, governments, business organizations, and universities should establish formal institutions along the lines of the Global Irish Economic Forum. These institutions make it easier to exchange skills, adopt innovative policies, mentor young talents, and launch philanthropic projects. To prove their commitment, governments in the countries most affected by the outflow of talent—France, Greece, Italy, and Spain—should establish a Ministry for the Diaspora, as Ireland did in 2014. And members of the elite diaspora should join the boards of universities and private and public companies to introduce best practices and help identify emerging technological trends earlier. Consider Uber. Founded in 2009 in San Francisco, it only reached Europe in 2014, catching governments and taxi drivers alike by surprise.

The loss of the continent's best and brightest citizens is a major political and economic failure for Europe. The departure of Europe's top minds has condemned the continent to a backseat role in global innovation and research. Yet, as Ireland shows, talented individuals who have left the country are not necessarily entirely lost. If properly engaged, they can still contribute to the much-needed renewal of the continent from afar.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • EDOARDO CAMPANELLA is a Eurozone Economist at UniCredit Bank and a Junior Fellow at the Aspen Institute Italia. The views expressed are his own.
  • More By Edoardo Campanella