Germany needs skilled workers numerous fields, especially nursing and health care. What could be more logical than to look around in neighboring countries? Today, the only people who are completely opposed to immigration are those permanently stuck in the past and right-wing populists. The new magic word is "qualified migration." Germany is cosmopolitan and ready to hurl itself into the worldwide battle for the best minds.
So, what could be said against the German government's new law to make it easier for interested young people from the Balkans, for example, to take up employment in Germany? Nurses from Kosovo, for instance? Nothing, of course. Especially if, as in Kosovo, there are actually unemployed nurses who would love to come to Germany. According to the statistics, most new arrivals also have relatives who have been living in Germany for a long time. At any rate, the government in Kosovo is not standing in the way of skilled workers' happiness. And the German government certainly isn't either. It's a good idea; a clean deal.
Eastern Europe is being depopulated
In eastern and central Europe, however, there are increasingly different calculations being made. The word around Kosovo is that we do indeed have many unemployed nurses, for example. But this is not because they are not needed. There is just no money to hire them. No state in Europe spends as little on health care as Kosovo. Take care of yourself, is the slogan that the country is blaring at its sick citizens.
Young people are still moving to the West in droves, not only from the Balkan countries, but also from many of the newer EU member states. Since the fall of communism, Latvia has lost more than a quarter of its population, Romania and Lithuania about a sixth, and even in Hungary the figure is still 6 percent. Bulgaria now has 22 percent fewer people than in 1990, and current forecasts predict that by 2050 another quarter will have disappeared. Emigration is responsible for two thirds of the population loss. The remaining third is due to a declining birth rate.
Lack of prospects and quality of life
Romania has the lowest density of doctors in the EU, Kosovo the lowest on the continent. Although the problem is clearest in the health care sector, other industries are also complaining about staff shortages. The number of construction workers, for example, has fallen dramatically. In eastern and central Europe's booming regions, construction projects remain unfinished for months because there are no workers. If they were better remunerated, the apartments they build would become unaffordable for newcomers from the countryside, a vicious cycle.
It is no longer sheer need that drives people away, or at least only in exceptional cases. People go because they can. The more attractive training opportunities in the West are tempting. Those who are better educated, in particular, appreciate western cities' international atmosphere. The wage gap also plays a role, although it is often not a decisive one.
However, life in Germany's low-wage sector is no longer comfortable, prompting people to consider returning to their homelands. But there are tangible disadvantages to returning home, despite the attraction of children being able to grow up with their mother tongue or caring for parents who are slowly growing old. Salaries usually drop by at least half. Sometimes higher qualifications are not recognized. Bureaucracy is often slow.
The East always loses out
Returnees often see possible positions filled by less well-trained but much better networked colleagues. The open-minded and adventurous have left; the more narrow-minded, the sluggish have often remained. After their return, those who come from remote regions or the countryside miss the diversity, leisure activities and the reliability of the authorities and the courts. In the battle for the best minds, the East always has the worse hand.
In eastern European countries, population shrinkage is surprisingly not a big issue, and if it is, then it is a weird one. It is the right-wing parties, above all, that are mobilizing against the "white plague," warning against the disappearance of the nation, wanting to drive women back to the hearth and suggesting that the issue of emigration smells of treason. The modern, reform-minded, on the other hand, are reluctant to criticize, probably also because many themselves sometimes play with the idea of trying their luck elsewhere.
Action is called for. When whole regions become empty, villages are reconquered by nature, pension systems implode and there is nobody left to meet the growing need of caring for the ageing population, then sooner or later this will become a problem for the whole European Union.
Structural policy may be first and foremost a problem for individual member states. However, the appeal is of little use if member states lack the means to really promote their regions. Mass foreign investment, the development model of the post-reunification period, does not offer a solution to the population decline: If wages rise, workers (perhaps) remain. But investors are moving on. And when it comes to making dependent regions livable again, states are now short of funds due to the low taxes with which investors were lured into the country.
A Europe that rejoices in workers from the East will sooner or later have to worry about those who are left behind. It could start by strengthening the EU's Cohesion Fund in the next financial plan instead of cutting it. And it could also look at distributing its resources by region rather than per capita. That would be a start.
Norbert Mappes-Niediek lives in Graz, Austria and is the southeast Europe correspondent for numerous German-language newspapers.