The Brain Drain Phenomenon within the European Union
Brain drain refers to the migration of highly trained professionals, including scientists, researchers, nurses, doctors etc.

Brain drain is a current issue within the European continent, and while its negative effects might not be very visible yet in those societies most likely to be affected, in a few decades (20 or 30 years) those countries will pay a heavy price if they fail to tackle this phenomenon.

The “brain drain” or “human capital flight” represents the migration of well-educated or talented people. The term "brain drain" was coined by the British Royal Society in the early '60s, in order to describe the migration of skilled workforce - more precisely the departure of British scientists and technicians to the U.S. and Canada. The phenomenon is most often associated with economic loss for those countries losing their highly skilled workforce. In Economics, this phenomenon is known as "human capital flight", referring to the movement of the capital which is not invested in the country where it was created. Brain drain is usually also associated with social loss, since it refers to the exodus of highly specialized professionals, scientists, researchers, academics and students. If we take into account that the human resource is currently the most important resource owned by a society/company, it can be concluded that the risk of the brain drain persistence can have devastating future consequences for those countries losing their best trained individuals.

The main causes of brain drain

The main cause of the brain drain phenomenon is the natural desire of individuals to find new economic perspectives, recognition, higher earnings and a better living standard.

More detailed studies have identified two types of causes: home factors - which push for immigration, and host country factors - which attract immigrants. These factors are called push-pull factors or rejection - attraction factors. The main causes of the brain drain are related to: lack of employment opportunities, economic underdevelopment and desire for better economic prospects, specialists’ under-utilization, lack of research facilities, desire for a higher qualification and recognition, a better educational system and better opportunities for professionals.

The negative effects of brain drain on the countries of origin

The home countries often invest public money to educate young people in professions requested by the companies, but some of them leave the country in order to exercise their professions in others countries. In this case, the countries of origin not only lose specialists needed by their economies, but also lose a lot of money spent with the specialists’ training. As the vast majority of those who move abroad are young, brain drain accentuates those issues associated with an aging of population in the countries of origin.

Moreover, when a highly educated young person moves to another country, the country of origin loses both the money spent on his education, but also the future income that he could have generated if he had remained in his country.

Regarding the solutions to limit the brain drain, for reasons related to human rights and the freedom of movement, migration cannot be politically prohibited or restricted; still, in the long term, governments need to adopt effective measures for preventing the brain migration phenomenon.

The brain drain phenomenon within the European Union

Mapping Brain Drain in Europe  

The brain drain phenomenon has become more visible in Europe since 2007 / 2008, when the economic crisis hit hard Southern European countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. Furthermore, following the integration of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU, an important part of the highly educated population from these two countries has decided to move to other European countries.

The European regions most affected by the brain drain phenomenon are: the South (Greece, Spain - especially Catalonia, and Portugal - because of the high rates of unemployment among highly educated people and especially the young), and Eastern Europe (Romania and Bulgaria – where low wages in education, research and medicine caused a professional staff exodus to Western countries). For example, in Romania the healthcare system is visibly affected by the doctors and nurses’ migration, which has led to a shortage of specialized medical staff.

In Spain, the progressive reduction of the budget for education and research determined the migration of a large number of professionals. To shoot a warning on the consequences caused by the brain exodus in the Spanish economy and society, in December 2012, 50 university rectors met in order to warn the political class that, if they continue with the budget cuts policy in Education “the damage in the public R&D will be irreversible (...) leaving thousands of young researchers without professional perspective and seriously weakening the future of the Spanish economy” (Morel, 2013).

Regarding the situation in Portugal, according to the economist Álvaro Santos Pereira, about 20% of the young Portuguese professionals chose to leave their homeland to exploit their capabilities in other countries (Pelletier, 2011).

In the case of Greece, the country most affected by the economic crisis, and where  unemployment among young people reaches 56.8% (in March 2014), the brain drain is a real current issue.

Therefore, on the one hand, the departure of professionals, scientists, students, IT engineers, medical staff or researchers from the South to the North, as well as from the East to the West of Europe has caused real damage to the economy and society of the country of origin.

On the other hand, in certain host countries, the brain drain represents a threat to some qualified citizens which fear to lose their jobs over another qualified EU citizen; in fact, at international level, there are only few countries such as: USA, Canada or Japan which are really capable of transforming the brain drain into a brain gain.


· Morel, S. (2013), ‘En Espagne, la fuite des cerveaux face à la crise’, Le Monde, 20 May.

· Pelletier, B. (2011), ‘L’Europe en crise et la fuite des cerveaux’, Gestion des Risques Interculturels, 9  October.

· Muižnieks, N. (2014), ‘Youth human rights at risk during the crisis’, Council of Europe, ( 

Edited by: Andreea Anastasiu