Debates over EU free movement often focus on the impact of immigration on destination countries. But as Cecilia Bruzelius explains, emigration is increasingly important in a number of EU member states, with many facing a ‘brain drain’ that is exacerbating existing demographic challenges. She argues the issue must be properly debated at the EU level and that a coordinated effort is required to address the problems emigration poses for certain states.

Intra-EU mobility associated with EU citizens’, inherently valuable, right to free movement comes with challenges. Political and academic debates on such challenges – and in particular the impact on national welfare states and labour markets – continue to be preoccupied with EU citizens’ right to enter other member states, and thus with countries of destination. The main concerns relate to perceived and actual impacts of additional benefit recipients, labour market competition and local pressure (with assessments finding that the aggregate fiscal impact seems, if anything, to be positive).

However, the free movement of people is also about exit. And, in a large number of member states it is in fact exit – or emigration – rather than immigration, that citizens worry about. According to a recent survey, the fear of emigration in some countries is great enough for large numbers of people to think that compatriots should not be allowed to leave their country for longer periods of time.

These worries reflect large-scale emigration from certain member states in the past fifteen years. Due to large socio-economic differences, Central Eastern and South Eastern member states have experienced significant emigration to other EU member states, predominantly to Germany, UK, Italy, France and Spain. And with the 2008 crisis, east-west migration was supplemented with south-north migration. Though emigration from these member states may have reached its peak and slowed down slightly, and some return migration is taking place, the impacts of emigration continue to be felt.

Emigration has contributed to de facto depopulation in some member states. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Poland have seen the most dramatic declines in population size. In the last century, Eastern Europe experienced the largest population loss in modern history. And Bulgaria’s population is expected to drop faster than that of any other country in the world. Though this is not solely the outcome of emigration (but a combination of low fertility, life expectancy, low-immigration rates and high emigration rates), emigration to other EU member states is a significant contributing factor.

Emigration has not only exacerbated poor demographic developments, it has also led to significant human capital losses. Intra-EU movers are overwhelmingly young and well educated. On average, intra-EU movers are more highly educated than the average population in both the country of origin and destination. ‘Brain drain’ also affects countries like Italy and Spain, where net-population loss is not occurring.

Viewed in isolation, such high levels of intra-EU migration indicate a success of the EU project, where labour mobility is a key part of realising an internal market. From an economic viewpoint, intra-EU migration has overall benefitted the EU: the gains from EU immigration in member states of destination have contributed to the aggregate EU economy, whilst emigration has reduced stocks of the unemployed workforce in member states of origin and thus overall EU unemployment. And for the individual citizen, the right to move is an important social insurance mechanism. ‘Brain circulation’ and ‘social remittances’ can also positively contribute to development in countries of origin.

French border sign, Credit: annaspies (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yet the pan-EU labour market is one with nationally bounded social systems, and emigration has serious adverse impacts on the ability of several member states to ensure the well-being of their resident population. Emigration has hampered economic growth and slowed per capita income convergence in affected member states, as the significant outflow of skilled labour has reduced the size of the labour force and productivity. These impacts have been somewhat mitigated by the significant remittances sent to member states of origin. However, though remittances can function as ‘privatised automatic stabilisers’, they tend to shrink over time if people settle more permanently in the new country. Moreover, remittances have even been shown to decrease the demand for public social provision.

In contrast to net-immigration member states that fret over the cost of additional benefit recipients, member states experiencing net-emigration face the challenge of sustaining social programmes as social security contributors and social service professionals leave. Emigration has drastically accelerated population ageing in several member states, aggravating already troublesome old-age-dependency ratios and raising concerns about social insurances. Probably the most acute effect of emigration is however its effect on social services. Several EU countries struggle to keep up health services as qualified medical personnel have left for work in richer member states. In some regions of Romania, 44 per cent of all positions for doctors are vacant. Across the country, the figure is 26 per cent. This despite Romania being one of the EU member states with the highest numbers of medical graduates.

Beyond direct impacts on welfare states, large-scale emigration of the young and educated also raises serious democratic concerns. When the most active and critical citizens leave, who will initiate reform to improve poorly functioning national institutions, or indeed save democracy as such, say in Hungary?

How the many social challenges arising from emigration can be addressed is far from obvious. As long as socio-economic differences in the EU remain large, current patterns of intra-EU migration are likely to continue. Wage convergence is happening, but large differences remain. Outmigration also crucially depends on the availability and quality of jobs, which are likely to continue to diverge across the EU given austerity policies and diverse growth strategies. The latter also raises doubts about suggestions that the EU should make stronger demands vis-à-vis member states with regards to the quality of their welfare states, such that EU citizens have a greater opportunity to choose whether to move.

Emigration member states could accept more immigration to counter the loss of their work force, but retaining these workers in an economically differentiated union could prove challenging. For example, Poland has accepted large numbers of Ukrainian workers. Yet as the EU began allowing visa-free travel for Ukrainians in 2018 and Germany is easing work requirements for skilled workers and targeting Ukrainians, 59 per cent of Ukrainians in Poland say they would leave for Germany when possible. The option of recruiting workers from Ukraine will also soon be exhausted, as Ukraine faces a much worse demographic situation than Poland.

Specific EU level funds to compensate for negative impacts of free movement have also been suggested, though such funding is to some extent already available in the form of the European Social Fund and the FEAD fund. A more targeted EU-level policy could address human capital loss. Compensating for losses that have already occurred is likely to be extremely complicated, but possibly an option to consider nonetheless. A more plausible forward-looking suggestion would be to coordinate human investment at the EU level. It need not be a problem that certain countries educate medical personnel, say, who then leave; the problem is the free riding of some member states on others.

Nevertheless, any policy meant to mitigate the adverse impacts of emigration would need to be carefully designed to avoid cementing certain patterns of migration, and power relations, say by encouraging a reliance on an unlimited supply of labour in destination states, or that some countries systematically supply medical personnel to other member states but underinvest in their own healthcare systems.

Addressing the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of intra-EU mobility is critical for the legitimacy of the EU and to avoid worsening already tense East-West relations. A geographically more nuanced debate might also, finally, lead us to recognise the fundamental European social interdependencies that underpin European national welfare. This will however require a fundamental change in the framing of the current discussion.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Cecilia Bruzelius – University of Tübingen
Cecilia Bruzelius is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tübingen.

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