In recent years, most of the debate around the global migration of people has focused on the movement into developed countries and the political battles that ensue. Most famously, Trump has overturned the wisdom of the American political establishment by saying the unsayable on immigration. Politicians from Riga to Rome have won votes (and office) by exploiting similar anxieties. But we seldom talk about the places which, year after year, see more people leave than arrive, and the consequences of countries saying goodbye to some of their best and brightest—often for good.
Nowhere is this concern more pressing than in Eastern Europe. According to the UN, of all the countries that are expected to shrink the most in the coming decades, the top 10 are all in the eastern half of the continent, and seven of those are in the European Union. One cause for concern among many of these countries is the EU’s freedom of movement, one of the four “fundamental freedoms” of goods, capital, services, and people that bind the 28. Although most press coverage of the bloc’s easternmost nations has focused on the rise of anti-immigration populism, there is mounting concern about the brain drain of its most highly qualified citizens to better jobs abroad. In at least six of the EU, the people leaving have become as controversial as those arriving, with some countries now favouring emigration controls.
In essence, the EU’s freedom of movement guarantees an absence of barriers for anyone looking for a job within the 28 countries and makes discrimination based on nationality in work or employment illegal. For many of the EU’s new entrants in the East—including Poland, Hungary and Romania—a future where capital and people could move more freely between themselves and France, the UK, or Germany looked like a fast-track to the top-tier of developed nations. But somewhat ironically, it has only accelerated the departure of those who are crucial to getting there.
In the last century, Eastern Europe has suffered the most dramatic population decline in recent history. According to one study, between 2013 and 2016, approximately 230,000 people left Croatia—a country with a population of only four million—for the 11 “core EU countries” of Western Europe. In the United States, this would be the equivalent of a city the size of Chicago leaving every year. This mass exodus of people is not lost on the country’s politicians; last year the Croatian President called the freedom of movement the “biggest drawback” of the EU. “Mobility is good, as long as people come back. But Croatia is now recording strong negative demographic trends,” she said during a visit to Brussels.
Since Latvia joined the EU, it has lost one-fifth of its population. Romania, a country that according to one organisation is due to see the most drastic population decline, has seen over three million leave the country since it joined the EU in 2007. It lost half of its doctors between 2009 and 2015, the vast majority to better-paid employ in the richer hospitals and surgeries of Western Europe, leaving its health service poorly staffed and on the brink of collapse. High mortality (including infant mortality) and low birthrates are only accelerating the decline.
Large-scale migration of healthcare workers from East to West has been an uncomfortable reality for over a decade, and the young needn’t travel long distances to drastically increase their standard of living. One Estonian doctor who graduated from medical school in 2001 was able to quadruple his salary by moving only 200 kilometres to Finland. In 2018, Denmark enjoyed the EU’s highest average gross annual pay at nine times that of the continent’s lowest in Bulgaria. Who can blame those who head for the greener pastures on the other side?
One solution, that may seem obvious to many, is to increase inward migration from overseas. There is one big problem, however. Eastern European attitudes are less favourable to immigration than they are in countries in the north and west. Cultural preferences, like sharing a religion, are also more important. According to 2017’s Gallup’s Migration Acceptance Index, all but two of the top 10 countries least accepting of immigration were from Eastern Europe (the others being Israel and the Czech Republic, which is considered Central Europe). Even Japan, a country that has also suffered from population decline—although for different reasons—and is reluctant to accept any large-scale immigration, has now begun to implement measures that will open itself up to labour from foreign countries.
The reasons people leave countries in the former Eastern bloc are numerous. Many are concerned about corruption and the limits it places on their country’s future. Others already have family living elsewhere on the continent. Most simply are looking for better prospects for themselves, their children, and their children’s children. Those taking part in the immigration debate in the West should be careful not to forget this fact. The drive to achieve a better life is the most human of instincts and we should not cast blame on those who act on it, lest we throw away our own humanity.
Equally, liberals and progressives in the West should stop viewing the immigration debate solely as an opportunity to flaunt their tolerance and “openness.” A welcoming nature and a desire to help those less fortunate than ourselves are admirable traits, but we mustn’t forget that by welcoming the world’s premier doctors, entrepreneurs, academics, and engineers—with few restrictions—we are depriving the places they come from of their potential; robbing them of the chance to make emigration an option, rather than a necessity—as many feel it is today.
On the liberal Left, acceptance of large-scale immigration is increasingly framed as a moral issue: are you a racist, or a xenophobe? If the answer is “neither,” what’s the problem? This forced dichotomy of good/bad or closed/open is unhelpful and obscures rather than illuminates. Ironically, while liberal immigration policies in general, and freedom of movement in particular, undoubtedly help those who leave, for the vast majority left behind, the result is a country that, in the long term, is measurably worse off. More often than not, those who frame the immigration debate in the starkest terms have little to say about this poaching of skills and talent from elsewhere.
In Europe, a conundrum we will increasingly have to confront is how to embrace openness whilst avoiding the erosion of another country’s social fabric. This may mean fundamentally reevaluating the freedom of movement, or at least restricting it to economies with comparable pay and conditions. Another solution may come in the form of increased cash transfers, and investment in smaller economies by bigger ones to try and level out standards of living. Something must be done soon, or populations in eastern Europe will continue to disappear.
History shows us that mass emigration can change a country forever. In an upstairs window of the Irish president’s official residence, one lamp flickers constantly. Lit by President Mary Robinson in 1990, it is a beacon to light the way home for the millions of descendants of the Irish who left their homeland over the centuries. (Ireland’s population peaked at more than eight million people in around 1840 and hasn’t yet recovered almost two centuries later.) One wonders whether the less prosperous countries of the European Union hit hardest by emigration may light their own lamps soon enough.
Josh Adams is a freelance writer from the UK whose work has recently appeared in Unherd, Areo and Arc Digital. He is currently writing a book about rare diseases and their impact on patients, families, healthcare systems and societies. You can follow him on Twitter @joshadz
CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified Mary Robinson as Mary Johnson. Quillette apologises for the error.
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