Emigration is the elephant in emerging Europe’s room. With the catastrophic numbers of people leaving the region (at least from some parts) speaking for themselves, the reaction of governments has been by and large conspicuously muted. Even in countries where there has been an attempt to address the issue, such as Poland, the resulting policies (most notably the 500+ programme, which makes relatively high monthly payments to families with two or more children) have been populist, aimed more perhaps at winning votes in the present and less about redressing the demographic imbalance in the long-term.
Besides, the demographic deficit is a problem that will need to be dealt with in the here and now as much as in the long-run. Several countries in emerging Europe are already facing a shortage of workers. While this will help to boost wages – and as I wrote in the previous issue of Emerging Europe magazine, the region certainly needs a pay rise – if investors begin to find recruiting workers difficult there is a strong possibility that growth could slow.
When Western Europe has faced shortages – at whatever level of the value chain – it has traditionally turned to migrants. In recent years (as anyone who has visited relatives in a UK hospital recently will know) these migrants – both skilled and unskilled – have come from emerging Europe.
The emerging European region itself appears to be less keen on migrants, at least from some parts of the world. Ukrainian Christians, be they Orthodox or Catholic, are welcome (or at least tolerated) in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Muslim Turks and Syrians much less so. Viktor Orban’s third successive election victory in Hungary (a victory won on the back of a nasty, anti-migrant campaign) likewise does little to suggest that attitudes will change anytime soon.
For all that, migration, as we report in the latest issue of Emerging Europe magazine (available online here) is not a panacea for labour shortages. Dealing with the demographic challenge will require a multilateral approach involving the European Union, local governments, business, civil society and universities. Large parts of the emerging European public will also need to contribute: the days of retiring at 50 on special pensions will have to come to an end. The Silver Economy will have an increasingly important role to play in ensuring that the region’s growth continues and that the path to convergence with Western Europe remains clear.