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Does EU enlargement mean a new wave of brain drain?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


With the prospect of several eastern and south-eastern European countries joining the European Union, the question arises as to what this means for internal migration within the EU. The idea is that joining the EU would boost national economies by making them part of the single market. But if millions can move at once to the more developed western countries in the Union, will this cause a new brain drain from the East? If so, what is needed to prevent this?


Flight of human capital

Brain drain, also known as 'flight of human capital', is the phenomenon where well-educated people leave their countries to live and work elsewhere where they get better pay. People leave their less developed countries to pursue better career opportunities. Perhaps they cannot fulfil their potential or the domestic labour market is not linked to the education system; people are trained to do something for which there is no demand. Although brain drain seems to be only a negative phenomenon, emigration leads to valuable 'remittances' (transfers) that also boost the domestic economy. Countries in the Balkans receive billions of dollars annually in the form of money sent back by relatives abroad. Kosovo tops the list when it comes to 'remittances' as a percentage of GDP (16%), followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina (11%) and Montenegro (10%).

Consequences of brain drain

Brain drain leads to loss of human capital and reduced economic growth, productivity and tax revenue in the country of origin. Moreover, it increases inequality between countries and thus only complicates EU accession. Therefore, human capital flight must be prevented to keep many countries' hopes for a European future high. Brain drain does not only affect possible EU accession, EU accession also affects the phenomenon of brain drain itself. Emigration of highly educated people is caused by social and economic imbalances and these can be undone by integration into the EU. Being part of the Union could give a boost to the domestic economy of the newly joined countries. With a stronger and more stable economy, countries could keep their highly skilled workers on board to help develop the country's economy. However, this situation is not easy to achieve and joining the EU, on the other hand, increases the possibility for people to move to the western part of the Union, where wages and conditions are better.

Effects of EU accession

The case of Romania shows a perfect example of what EU accession could mean for the phenomenon of brain drain. More than half of Romania's healthcare system has left the country since 2007. This has caused a huge financial loss. The training of doctors is paid for by Romanian taxpayers, while Western countries benefit from the trained and not the Romanians themselves. The system will not be repaid through taxes and the welfare system will take a big hit. Romania has only seen its population decline further since its accession. More than a fifth of the workforce lives abroad, in other EU countries, making it the largest diaspora in Europe. On the other hand, since Bulgaria's accession to the EU in 2007, the number of emigrants has declined because the country's economy is growing. This shows that EU accession has different effects on different countries, depending on the local context and economy.


To avoid a wave of brain drain, we need to invest in the acceding countries' economies and democracy. We must accept that the economies of western countries are stronger and that the new countries need time to effectively become part of the single market. However, there are measures that can be taken to try to limit the outflow of highly skilled workers. For example, by forcing those entering the labour market to work in their home country for a certain number of years before being allowed to work abroad in the same sector. Not only on the economic front, countries need to entice their people to stay, there are also steps to be taken in terms of democracy and governance. Good governance and transparent politics engage people more with their own country, making them reconsider their possible plan to leave.

From 'drain' to 'gain'

We should not forget that the EU the biggest freeloader is from the brain drain and therefore has a responsibility to reflect on itself and show empathy with the countries on the other side of the balance sheet. In the short term, it must compensate home countries for the costs they incur by exporting talent. Short-term effects of brain drain are a fact of life and imply that it is bad for everyone. In the long term, however, there is much hope. The case of Poland shows that people do not forget their homeland, and after years of being known for the number of people leaving, Are well-educated Poles now returning. And not only with money, but also with knowledge and skills gained abroad. These prove very valuable and boost the economy. The exodus 'reverses' itself and becomes a gain for the whole system. So-called 'brain circulation' is the long-term result and creates a beneficiary situation for everyone.


Growing inequality due to brain drain makes EU integration more difficult. At the same time, EU integration could be a solution to that growing gap, although this seems to be the case only in the long term. What could be a solution to the worrying uncertainties is to promote brain circulation rather than brain drain. EU enlargement is one way to facilitate this, as it makes migration between member states easier and removes major barriers. Short-term effects cannot be avoided and those who leave are drivers of economic development in the future. Therefore, the EU must take its responsibility regarding this phenomenon and start compensating in the short term to bridge the moment when inequality will increase, support economies and promote the mobility of knowledge to create a situation of prosperity for all.