Brain drain or brain exchange?

Employment and Social Affairs

Free movement of people has been one of the cornerstone of the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957. With the removal of border barriers and the abolishment of labour market restrictions, EU nationals have had the opportunity to settle wherever they choose within the boundaries of the European Union. Nevertheless, labour mobility has turned into a controversial issue, as the movement of the “European labour force” has become more common, due to the economic crisis.

Today, we assist to an increasing wave of labour mobility, also called brain drain, characterized by the migration of many young professionals from the European periphery to Northern Europe. Since its founding, the European Union has experienced growing migration trends of highly-skilled workers, especially after its enlargement. Nevertheless, migrating today is not anymore a choice, but a necessity. In recent years, Europe has witnessed an exodus of highly qualified professionals coming from countries like Ireland, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which have been hardly affected by the economic crisis. Facing a high unemployment rate, young researchers and scientists have left their own country in order to seek professional opportunities abroad. In most cases, the difference of wages, a better quality of life and economic stability have been the pushing factors that influenced the flight of human capital the most.

Although, in theory, labour mobility is one of the basic economic balancing mechanisms, which allows a currency area to survive to crisis, the flight of highly skilled “human capital” from certain regions of the EU to others may result in long-term negative effects on economic growth. Indeed, it is not surprising that a long-term brain loss could be detrimental to sending countries and could increase the already existing imbalance of economic power within the EU. Indeed, Member States, which have experienced a significant migration of highly-skilled human capital, would suffer from decline of productivity and lack of innovation; both these factors may result in a higher unemployment rates and in an economic slowdown, that could undermine any effort of these countries to change their growth model.

Starting by these premises, the brain drain from some European regions to others is a dangerous phenomenon, whose solution lies in the reversal of the increasing unemployment trend in the Southern European countries. In order to do so, Member States need to reform their productive model to secure a sustainable long term growth. At the same time, it is crucial for the EU to support countries experiencing flight of human capital not only with funding but providing recommendations on social policies.

The Commissioner for employment and social affairs, Marianne Thyssen, is preparing a “Labour Mobility Package”, which is supposed to be presented at the end of the first quarter of the year. “The EU has to return to the path of more jobs and social convergence. This as a matter of urgency. In promoting labour mobility, we have to take into account the needs and concerns both of the countries jobseekers are leaving, particularly considering the risk of brain drain, and the needs and concerns of the countries where they wish to work”, declared Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis.

The document is expected to analyse and report on mobility flows and their consequences on national labour markets and social security systems both in countries of origin and countries of destination. This could be an important occasion to deal with the brain drain phenomenon and to give rise to a “brain exchange”, through which highly-skilled professionals, moving throughout different regions of Europe, could contribute to the economic growth of the European Union as a whole.

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