Youth brain drain from the East

Article published on Sept. 19, 2005
Article published on Sept. 19, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Why is it that the young intelligentsia of New Europe feel such a fatal attraction for the countries of Old Europe, leading to an exodus that seems to be only increasing in intensity?

They are escaping towards the Western strongholds of cultural, scientific and industrial know-how. These modern-day Ulysses are mostly Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians: their presence is leaving an ever greater mark on the face of societies whose mix of names, languages and cultural characteristics is clearly in the process of changing. Pints of beer are sharing table space with glasses of zubrowka (Polish bison grass vodka) with apple juice.

But the new EU member states certainly do not wish for their educated youth to abandon the motherland, as highlighted recently by Mateusz Tomala of the Polish Law and Justice Party. They are wary of the centrifugal currents in Europe that seem to be provoking an unprecedented brain drain – and are sceptical as to whether young people’s motive is really to learn the West’s time-tested, consolidated socio-politico-economic models in order to import them back home. They find it hard to believe in this new form of colonialism as opposed to the traditional “survival of the fittest” model. What if the young people never come back?

Algorithms of fear

These fears of New Europe are not easy to assuage. This is why café babel has decided to organise Café Therapy, a series of debates across the continent to tackle the fears of Europe, to discover the root causes and developments of this phenomenon in order to then prescribe appropriate solutions. After all, it is only through dialogue and the sharing of personal and national experiences that we can hope to find a way out of this deadlock.

So why is there such a strong urge to escape towards old Europe? As new members of the EU, should they not be eager to show themselves as being ‘young and strong’ in comparison with the others? “Young and strong?”, laughs Czech student Andrea, “The Czech Republic is only a small state – we can help other members to solve their problems, not make the rules per se.” 24-year-old Filip explains, “in the over forty years of communist dictatorship, Western Europe represented for us Czechs the land of possibility: over there it wasn’t necessary to queue for two hours just to get some oranges. And you could get rich. But we could not leave our country and we half failed in trying to imitate Western democracy by observing it from the outside. We young Czechs want to learn, we speak good English, travel a lot and are aware of being the motor of rebirth for our country: for this very reason we must immerse ourselves in true democracy.” Judit, 23 and from Budapest confirms, “higher salaries, greater opportunities, international experience and working environment: this is what urges us towards Old Europe.”

Candidates available – minimum bilingual

Ewa and Magdalena, with their blonde hair and striking China-blue eyes, are typical Poles. Both are studying general and comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. They point out that “studying abroad is linked to finding a job more easily, not just in Poland but in Europe, and also to a curiosity for the ‘cultural life’ afforded by the multicultural ambiance. We are learning real savoir vivre in several languages – at least two”. Magdalena continues, “In Poland the future is not rose-tinted – possibilities are bleak and few. We do have ancient Polish universities, but it is widely acknowledged that French or British universities offer far more interesting opportunities”.

Ewelina, another Pole, agrees: “I am studying modern languages and business at the Sorbonne, I am 22-years-old, speak good English and French and have come to London through my studies to complete an internship in a large company.” And Piotr, a Polish financial analyst in the City, only adds fuel to the fire: “London offers many opportunities for people who are ready to work extremely hard. It is tough, but if you really work here, you can make your dreams come true”.

Wanted: Polish dentists

But which sectors are most affected by this brain drain from the East? Britain is investing in Poland and the government has set up a dentistry training school in Warsaw to provide Polish dentists for the ailing British health service. According to Magdalena, “it is widely recognised that Poles are conscientious and competent workers, so money invested in their training is not just thrown down the drain”.

The Czech Republic, on the other hand, is afraid of losing its students: they go abroad on the EU’s student exchange programme, Erasmus, and often never return. “You just can’t compare our infrastructures or the investments we make in the education and scientific sectors with that of other European countries”, Andrea tells us. But the students of today might be the scientists of tomorrow – and for this reason valuable prizes for young scientists are on offer: from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and the Learned Society of the Czech Republic, as well as awards dedicated to Otto Wichterle, which last year were presented to 24 young scientists. The research and development sector is also the most critical in Hungary, confirms Judit. That is why many large telecommunications companies – such as Pannon Gsm, leader in mobile telephony – offer study grants to young scientists and those completing their scientific doctorates.

Fight the fear with Café Therapy

So what if they never go back home? “After three years in France and the UK I will not return to Poland. After the Sorbonne I’m going back to London”, says Ewelina without a shadow of a doubt. “Considering the current situation in Poland I prefer to stay where I am and see what happens”, smiles Piotr. “I will go back eventually, when there are jobs on offer that offer personal and professional satisfaction”, declares Ewa in a defiant tone. Magdalena echoes the same feeling but with a greater spirit of potential: “Yes, if I find an interesting and well-paid job I can go home; but I could also stay in Paris or go elsewhere in Europe”.

So the curtain falls on this particular café babel discussion: Andrea, Filip, Judit, Ewa, Magdalena, Piotr and Ewelina have been our representatives of the new young pioneering Ulysses of the East. The next rendezvous is October 1 in Warsaw where a Café Therapy debate will be taking place – to help exorcise the fear.