The fight against brain drain in the Western Balkans is Europe’s war on drugs—that decades-long, largely ineffective U.S. campaign aimed at eradicating narcotics production and smuggling from Latin America. Yet, there was little consideration of the other half of the equation: the spiraling domestic demand for drugs in the United States.
The EU is similarly addicted to labor imported from the Western Balkans but is engaged in a half-hearted effort that focuses solely on factors emanating from the region itself.
The Western Balkans, like Eastern Europe before them, have been depopulated by war, guest-worker programs, and now brain drain. The World Bank estimates that 4.4 million people emigrated from the region between 1990 and 2015. To put it in perspective, this figure includes nearly one-third of the populations of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
About half the region’s emigrants move to Western Europe, as economic powerhouses like Germany attempt to right their inverted population pyramids. With some 1.3 million vacant jobs and an aging populace, Germany in 2020 introduced a skilled immigration act that eases labor market access for non-EU citizens. The preconditions of German language skills and equivalence of qualifications favor Western Balkan workers, whose home economies already tilt toward Germany.
Migration is a product of push and pull factors. Yet, even during Germany’s EU Council presidency in the second half of 2020, demographic conferences on the Western Balkans emphasized only the push factors that spur migration: bleak economic prospects, corruption, and organized crime. While these are legitimate issues, this perspective puts the onus exclusively on the region to solve the problems. There is little recognition of the pull factors and no acknowledgment of the vast benefits the EU reaps from brain drain.
Labor outflows represent big money. Economist Federico Fubini estimates that Eastern European and Western Balkan countries injected over €200 billion ($238 billion) into the German economy via education and training of young workers who moved there between 2009 and 2017.
Furthermore, Western Balkan workers often migrate for jobs below their qualification level, which still pay better than advanced positions back home. This underuse of skills and education represents a net efficiency loss. As Romanian European parliamentarian Clotilde Armand explained, “this exodus is a de facto transfer of wealth” from East to West.
Senior European officials like Friedrich Merz, who yearns to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have warned against the EU becoming a “transfer union” of rich member states subsidizing less wealthy peers. But add brain drain to the profits that Western European companies make doing business in the East, and these East–West wealth transfers far outstrip EU funds traveling in the opposite direction.
Until Western Europe acknowledges its key role as both a destination for and a beneficiary of brain drain, the EU cannot be considered an honest broker on Western Balkan demographics.
Brain drain decimates labor markets and has serious economic consequences. The shortage of qualified workers stunts growth and discourages foreign investment. Particularly relevant in the coronavirus era is the lack of qualified health workers in the Western Balkans, who are instead saving lives in Western Europe. Given that the region has some of the world’s lowest fertility rates and little immigration, growing pension costs are borne by a shrinking tax base. This either contributes to rising government deficits or reduces beneficial public spending.
Brain drain also has political repercussions. Western Balkan emigrants are on average younger and more educated than citizens back home and therefore tend to form a relatively liberal segment of the electorate. Emigration thus alters a population’s political behavior and can empower poor political leadership. When the most motivated and qualified citizens flee the country, there are fewer high-quality individuals available to lead—or vote.
Such consequences are possible in all countries that experience a loss of talent. What makes the Western Balkan case unique are the implications for EU enlargement. Brain drain decelerates EU economic convergence and the adoption of the fiscal criteria for membership. The transfer of wealth offsets the EU’s pre-accession assistance. And the hollowing out of the electorate reinforces a cycle of corruption and ineffective leadership. In sum, unmitigated brain drain and EU accession are mutually exclusive.
The solution is not to forbid emigration—even though a surprising 2019 report by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that majorities of citizens in several EU countries would support just that. Such a policy would erode one of the four fundamental freedoms that uphold the EU experiment: the free movement of labor.
Instead, the EU should approach the issue as a true partner. Rather than fighting an ineffective war on brain drain based on half-truths, the union should develop policies that address both push and pull factors, such as obliging labor-importing nations to compensate source countries for the true cost of exporting talent.
A 2020 European Commission report on the impact of demographic change identified a need “to embed demographic considerations across EU policy” and “reduce the disparities between regions.” Now is the time to deliver. An EU that is serious about accession must take responsibility as the primary beneficiary of brain drain from the Western Balkans and share the burden of finding a solution.