Struggling European economies contend with brain drain

Struggling European economies contend with brain drain

Fuelled by debt crises, a lack of job prospects in several European countries is causing the highly educated to seek work elsewhere. This brain drain only further hamstrings struggling economies and leads to influxes of immigration in Germany and the United Kingdom.

It has been almost eight years since the beginning of the Great Recession, and low wages, paucity of jobs and staggering unemployment rates continue to plague the EU. Such conditions have prompted increasing migration of highly educated and skilled labour.

Given that it is national governments that primarily fund Europe’s higher education system, this migration pattern is especially devastating: in financial terms, each skilled worker who leaves the continent represents a significant failed investment. Brain drain has hit countries in Southern Europe and even parts of Eastern Europe especially hard. Crippled with chronically high unemployment rates, they have little to offer.


Struggling to climb out of recession, unemployment rates in Spain are abysmal. It has the Eurozone’s second highest rate with 26.3 percent of people now out of work – a figure much higher for those under 30. According to the most recent Eurostat figures, 57 percent of the population below 30 cannot find a job. In 2013, Spain’s Employment Minister Fátima Báñez dismissed the country’s evident brain drain problem, arguing that young people were simply exercising “external mobility.”

US-based Spanish astrophysicist Moro Martín retorted with an open letter to Spain’s government with the following words: “Please let the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology know that the science I do will no longer be Spanish, nor thanks to Spain; rather I will keep doing science in spite of Spain,” she said. Spending on research has been dramatically slashed as a painful result of the Spanish government’s austerity program.

The number of Spaniards moving abroad continues to escalate. It rose by 14,000 in 2013 – over 6 percent more than in 2012. However, it may take until the year 2020 to fully recognize the impact of this migration, when Spain will find itself short 1.9 million highly skilled workers, according to a report by employment agency Randstad.


Sky high unemployment and a shrinking economy continue to define Greece’s grim job opportunities. At just over 26 percent, it has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union. Among young people  is more than twice that , at an appalling 58 percent. Strong austerity measures have restricted growth prospects and the Greek economy is now in its sixth consecutive year of negative growth.

The future of public sector employees is especially bleak. Recent talks between the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank concerning the health of Greece’s economy have resulted in the erasing of another 150,000 public sector jobs in Greece this year.

Doctors, engineers, IT professionals and scientists are finding it next to impossible to find work as funds from publicly supported sectors continue to be cut. As a result, many are forced to leave home and gamble their luck in countries like Germany, England, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden.

The quality of teaching in Greece is also threatened. With drastic cuts, an increasing number of students are now moving to Germany to complete their university studies while others are even choosing to directly begin them there.


Each year, thousands of skilled professionals are leaving Portugal, fleeing its severely bruised economy by finding jobs in former colonies, such as Angola, Mozambique and Brazil. A small country of roughly 10 million people, Portugal too is witnessing an ongoing exodus.

Some 128,000 left in 2014 alone, adding to the 300,000 that have already emigrated between 2011 and 2013. Despite concluding its three-year 78-billion-euro ($106 billion) international bailout program last May, Lisbon continues to pick up the pieces that the harsh austerity measures have left behind.

Portugal’s fragile health system is especially hurting from the effect of funding cuts implemented as part of its international aid program. With little or no job prospects, it is estimated that roughly a third of the 3,500 nurses who qualify in the country each year will depart, many relocating to Germany and Britain. With a Portuguese diaspora of three million citizens around the world, it was traditionally blue-collar workers who emigrated. Now it is the highly educated.

Romania and Bulgaria

Romania and Bulgaria have also seen an increasing percentage of their top talent flee, especially those from the education, research and medical sectors. In light of anaemic wages and pitiful working conditions, a growing number of Romanian doctors are determined to leave. Where the net starting salary for a doctor in Bucharest is usually around €350 per month, they can earn closer to €3,000 in the UK and Germany.

So significant has Romania’s migration of doctors and nurses been  that its healthcare system now has a shortage of specialized medical staff. Over the past two years 30 percent of resident doctors have left Romania, reducing the overall number of physicians from 20,000 in 2011 to 14,000 last year, according to official data. The impact of this constant exodus is exacerbated because of the sunk investment in training. Romania, a country of 19 million, spends roughly €3.5 billion (£2.9bn) educating doctors.

Bulgarian doctors are also looking for work in other EU countries, particularly in Germany, Austria and the UK, in hopes of earning 10 times their Bulgarian salaries. A recent study by the department of social medicine and public health at the Medical University of Sofia estimates that over 80 percent of newly qualified doctors plan to leave Bulgaria.

Germany and Britain: Winners or Losers?

For many, these two countries are the lands of opportunities. Fuelled primarily by the ongoing crises in many European nations, net migration to Germany reached a 20-year high in 2013. In the UK, this number rose to 260,000 in the year to June 2014 — an increase of 78,000 on the previous year.

Exactly one year ago, nine European countries lifted controls on labour immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, stirring fears of an invasion of workers coming from two of the EU’s poorest countries. An estimated 50,000 people from Romania and Bulgaria will move to the UK every year until 2019. The matter of Eastern European immigration has become quite the hot topic in Britain and is often called “benefits tourism.” In Germany, it is more commonly known as “poverty migration.”

Effective management will be vital in the midst of growing brain drain sclerosis. With muted growth in most of these countries, it remains to be seen whether they will be capable of getting on a solid path to recovery and able to lure back those who have left. In the long run, it seems appropriate to think that the consequences will be devastating if this trend persists.

Categories: Economics, Europe

About Author

Itziar Aguirre

Itziar currently works as a Research Consultant at JLL, a commercial real estate capital intermediary. She holds an MBA in Accounting and Finance from the University of St. Thomas and an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics.