January 30, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania – Since Romania joined the European Union (EU) some 10 years ago, over one million Romanians have emigrated in search of better work opportunities and lives.

As many people looked West for better prospects, to countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, Romania has suffered from the phenomenon that is often described as ‘brain drain’.

Romania’s population has been declining since the fall of communism in 1989, a trend that was exacerbated when the country became a full EU member in 2007. In 1989, for example, Romania’s population was 23.2 million, compared to 19.8 million in 2015. The effects of educated or highly-skilled people leaving Romania are being keenly felt in the country.

Although Romania now boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the EU, its problematic mix of an ageing and declining population, and the migration of young skilled workers is expected to add real pressure on certain sectors, including healthcare and pensions. In short, Romania needs to attract its brains from abroad back home.

Romania’s shambolic healthcare system, for example, is one sector that has been negatively affected by people emigrating. In recent years, thousands of Romanian medical workers have moved to more developed EU countries for higher wages and better working conditions. The fact that they can earn up to ten times more abroad has led to severe staff shortages in Romanian hospitals. Since 2007, it is estimated that around 20,000 medical workers have left Romania, also creating a huge burden to the state in medical training costs. Around 3.5 million Romanians are believed to be living and working in other EU countries.

Last year, in an attempt to attract back some of its citizens the Romanian government launched a scheme offering $50,000 grants, along with business guidance, to each person who wants to repatriate and start their own business. 

“This is a great solution for the brain drain Romania has faced for some time,” says Livia Popa, a London-based senior finance manager at multinational firm TH Real Estate, “considering that it will not only attract talent but also professionals with capital who are ready to put up their own savings.”

However, while some believe that such a scheme could bring some success, and be a particularly tempting offer to Romanian developers living abroad; it is also being viewed with skepticism due to the country’s often stultifying bureaucracy.

“The process of accessing the funding needs to be very straightforward, and not involve too much bureaucracy, otherwise it might have the opposite effect,” says Vlad Ciurca, Co-Founder of Techsylvania, one of Eastern Europe’s largest tech events, “considering the lower costs of setting up a company in Romania, it might be a very good starting point for entrepreneurs.”

But money is seldom the only concern, according to Ciurca. “Key people in the government should be much more present in the initiatives supporting entrepreneurs,” he adds.

So many Romanians have headed West over the past few years, that during the first six months of 2014, those working abroad sent home $1.9 billion in remittances, effectively becoming the country’s largest investor. Higher average salaries earned abroad that are later sent home can help reduce poverty, increase consumer spending, and force a rise in local wages. But the overall impact is largely negative: namely stunted economic growth and stretched public finances. Ciurca believes that the government should nurture and support skilled workers before they decide to pack their bags and leave.

However, attracting back its citizens abroad is no easy task.

Romania is one of the most corrupt countries in the EU, and despite a recent crackdown on high-level graft, Romanians still have a deep distrust of their government. This may prove to be a sticking point in convincing ambitious Romanians who now live in more developed countries to return home to effectively court officialdom. This weekend, tens of thousands of Romanians protested in Bucharest and other cities against government proposals to push through amnesty laws that would pardon thousands of prisoners, and potentially slow down the country’s anti-corruption fight. Local news channels say they were the largest protests in Romania since the 1989 revolution.

Fabian Murariu, a Romanian software engineer working in London, believes that while “quite a few people” may take up such financial incentives to move back, it also glosses over more fundamental flaws in the country, such as “rampant corruption, nepotism, failure of the healthcare system, [and a] lack of accountability for members of parliament.”

“I would not move back, money is not the reason I left Romania, I was doing quite alright there.” says Murariu.

Other government initiatives trying to counter the brain drain include setting low tax rates for its IT workers to help retain its large numbers of skilled developers and to attract investment. However, while it’s clear that in the short term Romania will struggle to compete with Western Europe when it comes to wages offered, those who currently live abroad say that it’s more than just money or corruption that discourages a move back.

“It is the lack of variety in opportunities,” says 24-year-old Dragos Munteanu, who works in the music industry in London, “if I move back, all of a sudden the list of things I can do to earn a living narrows substantially.”

Munteanu isn’t ready to totally rule out moving back as he believes in keeping his options open. He goes on to cite his preference for climates warmer than in the UK, for which Romania would fit the bill for most of the year. If the Romanian government is serious about attracting back some of its diaspora population, however, it may need more than grants and good weather to become the choice destination.

Being young, educated and part of the EU now offers endless options, and just like their Western European counterparts, Romanians can have it all.