Central and Eastern European states are faced with a demographic crisis that has a potential to seriously undermine the region’s geopolitical strength and economic prosperity. Aging population, underpinned by the mass emigration and brain drain are a nightmare in waiting and an economic time bomb in disguise. Surprising as it may be, the upcoming Brexit negotiations present themselves as a great opportunity to place the issue on the agenda.
A decline in population numbers in the Visegrád Countries (i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) is a real problem. Currently about 63 million people live in these countries but by 2050 the number is forecast to decrease by 12 million down to 51 million, partly due to the ongoing mass emigration notably to other EU countries in the West.
According to the IMF estimates, some 20 million people from Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe (CESEE) have left their home country since the fall of the Iron Curtain – an exodus that has led to lower GDP growth and living standards making the post-communist struggle of societal and economic transition more arduous than it would otherwise have been. Many of the CESEE migrants have since settled in one of the Western EU countries such as the UK which, according to rough estimates, is now home to more than one million Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks and Czechs.
Immigration was a dominant issue during the Brexit referendum campaign and remains so even today, in the lead-up to the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. The UK has recently announced that free movement of workers from the EU will no longer apply once the government triggers Article 50 – a clear sign that the UK will not mince its words when it comes to its future immigration policy.
On the other hand, the rest of the EU, and in particular countries from Central Europe (with Poland leading the way), have expressed a clear commitment to the principle of free movement. A commitment that can prove a major if not insurmountable stumbling block in reaching a beneficial post-Brexit EU-UK deal.
But given the problems outlined above, namely the enormous brain drain and the economic and social cost as a result of it, are the Visegrád countries best served by their insistence on keeping the UK’s labour market open for their citizens?
The phenomenon of brain drain is a complex issue, no doubt. People are both ‘forced’ to emigrate by the dire circumstances back home as well as attracted by the better living conditions in the countries abroad. These push-pull factors are two sides of the same coin and the problem cannot be sufficiently dealt with by just reducing the latter. Simply put, Central European countries will have to do their own homework when it comes to fighting corruption or fixing healthcare, education or judicial system if they want to prevent the best and the brightest from emigrating.
Nevertheless, governments should avoid actively encouraging their own citizens from leaving their home countries as too much emigration undermines the society’s ability to grapple with the very same issues driving people away in the first place. It is a vicious circle where those most likely to fix the underlying problems are the ones most likely to emigrate. The remittances that emigrants send back home are a drop in the ocean of the economic loss and no amount of money will make up for the social and human capital deficit.
At this point it is important to draw a clear distinction between the words “encourage” and “enable”. The Visegrád countries had previously suffered from the Communist regimes and people still vividly remember the Iron Curtain that not only prevented them from traveling freely but which had criminalised, at the pain of death, those who made the attempt to cross it. No government should ever prevent its people from emigrating. After all, and to paraphrase an East German dissident Wolf Biermann, one can only love what he is free to leave. Freedom must be paramount.
However, that is not to say that the governments should actively encourage people to leave. By insisting on making immigration into the UK easy, the V4 governments are pulling a rug from underneath their feet. Brexit is therefore an opportunity for Central and Eastern Europe to scale down its mass emigration and step up its internal restructuring.
So what should be the priority for the V4 countries in the upcoming negotiations with Britain? In one word: trade. While it is true that currently the Visegrád countries trade far more with Germany than with the UK, the latter, nevertheless, remains a major trading destination – especially for Poland for which Britain is the second largest trading partner in the EU. The V4 countries stand more to gain from enhanced trade with Britain than from free movement and it is therefore in their own interest to ensure the EU does not block a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the UK at the expense of free movement of workers.
Of course this “concession” on free movement by the EU and the V4 in particular should be offset by a concession on the part of the UK, perhaps, by offering increased financial commitments from Britain to the region of Central and Eastern Europe. An idea along these lines is already being discussed in the corridors of the Whitehall in London. It would appear that as the UK becomes more and more adamant about keeping its borders closed, it is by the same token becoming more open towards the idea of loosening its purse strings.
The extent to which the V4 countries can succeed in navigating the waters of Brexit negotiations will depend not only on the UK but also on the rest of the EU. Understanding that Europe’s leaders will be careful not to sugar-coat the Brexit deal – in fear that it would drive other states towards leaving the Union – the Visegrád countries will have to convince their partners in Brussels of the necessity to prioritise trade over free movement.
Furthermore, the V4 governments must come to a realisation that any sustainable policy against aging population and brain drain will require more than short-term fixes as a result of the UK leaving the EU. Recognising the underlying reasons for people leaving Central Europe and putting one’s house in order is not only a logical but also necessary step that needs to follow the Brexit negotiations if Central Europe is to have any future.