Columns, Opinion

Worldview: How the EU helped exacerbate Eastern Europe’s demographic crisis

One of the most hotly debated subjects in the European Union is migration. Typically, the media tends to focus on external migration to Europe, such as North African migration through the Mediterranean Sea or Syrian refugee flows through Turkey and Greece. However, the subject of internal migration — the flow of people within EU borders — is a subject of equal concern and debate.

One of the core features of the EU is its labor mobility, which is considered one of its four fundamental freedoms. In the context of the single European market, labor mobility is greatly advantageous for individuals and for the overall economy because it allows skilled laborers to find high-paying work.

Since the fall of communism and the influx of post-Soviet bloc countries into the EU, however, the fundamental freedom of labor mobility has been brought into question.

The comparative wealth of the West European countries relative to their eastern counterparts means that skilled workers tend to gravitate toward the west, where there are higher wages and better living conditions.

Due to the ease with which people can migrate between EU member states, this has caused a mass exodus of skilled laborers from former Soviet-bloc countries. The so-called brain drain in Eastern Europe has made it impossible for these countries to compete with their fellow EU members in the West.

In Romania, for example, a countrywide survey conducted in 2016 found that more than 40 percent of Romanians wanted to emigrate.

Romania’s finance minister Eugen Teodorovici told reporters in Bucharest, “in Romania, 1 million workers are missing,” and that Romania “can’t compete with the most powerful countries in the EU.”

He called out the EU’s policy of labor mobility for contributing to Romania’s brain drain, stating, “as a whole for the EU it is a good result, this mobility of labor force. But if you’re discussing about a case by case basis … the situation is very different.”

Some consider such criticisms as being devoid of personal responsibility, however. Siegfried Muresan, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, criticized Teodorovici, stating, “Many Romanians who have moved abroad have done so to escape poverty at home. It is the job of the minister to create more opportunities for those people in Romania, not to forbid them from seeking a better life elsewhere.”

While this may be true, it is very difficult to enhance domestic competitiveness in the job market when it is so easy for people to migrate to countries that already have superior wages and benefits. In Bulgaria, for instance, the intention of the government is not to prevent the migration of young workers, but to encourage them to return after a few years of working abroad.

Krasimir Valchev, the minister of education and science of Bulgaria, considers this policy to be successful.

“The pace of emigration has declined over the past few years,” Valchev said. “We’re seeing emigration steady at lower levels now and more people are returning from abroad.”

Another component to consider in this debate is population. The high rate of migration coupled with low birth rates has created a serious demographic crisis in Eastern Europe. Despite Valchev’s optimism, Bulgaria’s population has declined 22 percent from its 1990 level and is projected to decline another quarter by 2050.

Two-thirds of this population loss is due to emigration while the remaining third is because of declining birth rates, according to an article from DW Akademie. Bulgaria is not unique, either. Since 1990, Latvia has lost more than a quarter of its population while Romania and Lithuania have lost about a sixth.

This trend is not lessening, either. According to the United Nations, the 10 fastest shrinking countries in the world are all in Eastern Europe. It should also be noted all of them with the exception of Ukraine, Moldova and Serbia are members of the EU and are therefore particularly vulnerable to mass emigration.

While birth rates are undeniably a domestic issue unrelated to the EU, the question of labor mobility ought to be addressed in Brussels.

The freedom of mobility ought to be cherished because it grants the individual economic liberties and opportunities they would not have access to otherwise. This being said, the EU’s lax internal migration laws are bleeding Eastern Europe dry of its youth and skilled labor.

One Comment

  1. This was a concern within Germany shortly after reunification, when a tidal wave of East Germans began heading westward. In the end, to solve the problem of depopulation, the federal German government had to open its pocketbook and invest in the neglected areas from which these people were, essentially, fleeing. Since then, while the former East Germany is still poorer than the west, these areas are not experiencing crisis-level population decline.
    Similarly, the EU will have to pay for better infrastructure/etc in its eastern regions if these countries are to be able to attract people back (especially important if the area wants to reduce its carbon emissions, as coal and other dirty fuels are still prevalent in Eastern Europe).