While Central and Eastern Europe is rapidly developing, it will take a few more generations for welfare levels in the EU’s East and West to become comparable, but these societies need the talents and liberal mindsets of those who’ve emigrated to return to their home countries.

Regardless of the European Union cohesion funds which have contributed to the rapid development in the new member states allowing them to approach Western European levels of welfare, the risk of the middle-income trap has emerged. And what of the ever louder ticking demographic bombs!

Nevertheless, there are other ways to accelerate true unification of Europe – through Eastern European countries regaining their immigrants. Not only the Eastern countries should be interested in this but also the Westerners.

Old divisions

To be fair, it should be emphasised that in the inter-war era, these countries (bar perhaps Czechoslovakia) were not beacons of democracy.

Hence, 50 years of soviet domination did not contribute to the strengthening of democratic, Western values growing stronger in the region. Nevertheless, the “singing revolutions” and the subsequent reforms showed that most East and Central European citizens are the supporters of Western democracy and not the authoritarian regime.

Courageous men and women braved the weakening, but still dangerous bear and firmly decided: their countries’ place and future lies with the Western world of liberal democracy.

Ivan Krastev

After the revolutions, often reforms were based on the principle of copy-paste in the belief that we, the East and Central countries of the old continent, were already “returning” to Europe. There was much hope that our return to Europe is just so natural that it will happen in a single generation if not sooner.

Ivan Krastev very accurately observed that the singing revolutions were notable for a unique trait. As a rule, those on the losing side of a revolution tend to leave the countries that experienced it. But in the case of the singing revolutions, most of those who left their countries first were the winners of the revolutions. It turns out that it is easier to change countries than to change your country.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the freedom of movement to many appeared to be the most important freedom, which they rushed to make use of. Expectedly for some, unexpectedly for many others, the mass depopulation of the new EU Member States began.

The attraction of the West

The situation has frequently been referred to as a “brain drain” because often it is the most courageous, hardworking, proactive and entrepreneurial that leave. Moving to another country is not the same as moving from a village to a city or from one city to another in your own country.

This migration continued even after the great expansion of the European Union in 2004 when ten Eastern and South European countries were accepted into the Union.

It was thought that the largest problem of the new member states was their poverty and lack of funds. Yes, there were such problems and persist today.

Even with an influx of money, Eastern Europeans still relentlessly flooded into the richer Western European countries, but this is not the greatest problem.

It turns out that you can – through European (mostly German) money – improve infrastructure and overall inject money into the economy to start the economic engine, but this is not enough to replace the Soviet thinking in our heads.

You typically need a number of generations to change thinking and if unfavourable historical conditions repeat, this may even fail. Current events in Hungary, Poland, Czechia and the former-DDR illustrate very well how even being rid of economic insufficiency does not change mindsets.

Many Eastern Europeans continue to long for people’s republics and the Soviet way of life. Driven by a misplaced nostalgia, a part of population even vote in support of illiberal candidates. This has been compounded by the fact that most progressively thinking Eastern Europeans have departed abroad, thus no longer participating in the creation of their countries and societies.

It is in these Eastern Europeans who have “tasted” the Western world that the true rebirth of the new European Union members and their leap to a better future lies in. This is something that should also be of interest for the wealthy EU countries.

Emigrants from the new EU countries are known to quite rapidly integrate into Western European societies. I will talk from the Lithuanian emigrant perspective, with most choosing the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scandinavian countries or Germany.

Of course, there are numerous unpleasant exceptions, but most typically learned to “swim” in Western European countries. They see in Western countries that which they wished to see in their own: respect for the individual and the law.

They wish to live in a country where the law is paramount and where there is almost no tolerance of corruption.

Are larger wages also important? Yes, they are, but they are not the most important factor which keeps the new EU countries’ emigrants in Western Europe.

There is a saying that you become who you live with. The voluntary “exile” of Eastern Europeans to Western Europe could be compared to the Jewish diaspora led by Moses through the desert. After 38 years of wandering, a few generations were born that had never seen slavery.

Our countrymen who chose exile voluntarily are, by living in Western Europe, adopting a Western European way of life, that is to say, becoming less Soviet and more Western. For the majority of them, this change in mentality would be impossible if they had remained here.

It is a leap forward of biblical proportions, which grants the opportunity to finally fully join together Western and Eastern Europe into one. But this can only be done by encouraging those emigrants to return home.

Easy to say, hard to do.

Growing wages are already bringing some back home. But returns on the larger scale will only happen when Western Europeans realise that while Eastern Europeans are an important addition to the successful functioning of the Western European economic model and that they are even more needed back home.

Eastern Europeans have already performed their duty in the West. Eastern Europe has beautiful cities, towns and villages with – thanks to EU structural funds – excellently developed infrastructure.

Now, the time has come for returning Eastern Europeans to begin walking on these newly paved sidewalks and streets. These are the people in whose heads there is less Soviet and more Western thinking. These are the people, who will bring their experiences and will thus expand the critical mass of Western thinking citizens, who will also vote for parties and politicians who uphold Western values.

These newly returning citizens have the capacity to breathe new life into the modernisation of Eastern Europe. The EU funds have given us enough “fish” while these returnees would become our “fishing rods.” Afterall, with correct application, what works in the West also works well in the new EU members.

Articles and reports about successfully implemented, new business ideas which were born while working in the West now are almost a daily part of our internet portals, newspapers and TV broadcasts. The returnees will change our societies irrevocably and the more of them, the better; not just for us here, but also for Western Europe.

The ties that bind

Why will this bring the EU’s East and West together even more? First of all, it is easier to communicate, come to agreement with and cooperate with those of like thinking . Especially with those, who may have lived in your country or even your city.

Perhaps you even went to the same gym, pub or used the same station on your way to work. Every single contact between Eastern and Western Europeans will make any conversation easier.

A Lithuanian, who has lived in Ireland will find it easier to interact with a native Irish. A native Irish will find it much easier to interact with a Lithuanian who has lived in Ireland compared to one who spent their life in Lithuania.

Of course, I am talking in general terms, there are always exceptions. Nevertheless, returning citizens could potentially become the much sturdier “bridge” with Western Europe, which we never had.

Those returning from those countries could become “ambassadors” for Lithuania. Here you have emotional links between East and West Europe, which are an incredibly important factor in building bridges between countries. This also benefits Western Europe.

Returning Eastern Europeans will also reduce social tensions in Western Europe as well as the arguments used by populist powers to gain votes.

Moreover, the returnees will also improve the situation of the new EU countries experiencing demographic decline. This would also bar the way to the strengthening of xenophobic parties in Eastern Europe because employer confederations are already quite intensively campaigning for filling job vacancies with employees from third countries.

I do not believe that the returnees would agree to work for the minimum wage, but will instead create or embed themselves in new industries which will create different, higher added value jobs and will furthermore bring Western work culture.

But for this to happen, we must admit to ourselves that the time has come to begin this “reclaiming” process. We had “lent out”, but we understand that the time has come to “regain” for your and our benefit.

Encouraging the move

Unfortunately, exceptional measures are needed because the hand of the free market acts too slowly. Various surveys show that over 50% intend to return home.

First of all, EU institutions should recognise that the return of the new Europeans is a very high priority and that respective focus and funding is required. Additionally, the creation of a special institution responsible for this task is essential. This institution should begin by fostering cooperation with relevant member state institutions, and then a long-term implementation strategy should be created.

EU institutions and host countries must help Eastern Europeans living in their countries maintain their ethnicity. Let us start from aiding their children in retaining language skills as this helps greatly with the return home. Also, financial aid to programmes which can help integrate the returnees’ children upon returning to their motherland.

We must create programmes, which financially incentivise returning. Yes, it clashes with the precepts of the free market, there will be abuses and there will be failures.

Let’s start from the creation of a mechanism that would aid those returning home, from help in terminating commitments in the host country (social and health insurance and such) to registration of children in school.

We should create local social clubs which could aid with reintegration. Such clubs can act as a meeting place for returnees where they could share their experiences, consult social workers and reintegration officers. Although, the physical chore itself of moving back should not be over looked.

Families which agree to return receive a package (all the moving expenses are covered, a sum is set aside for children starting school/pre-school, several hundred euro of “return money” granted every month for the first year).

If a returnee like this creates at least one job for themselves, for a few years, all state taxes are instead paid from a special EU structural fund. If the company generates business and draws back more returnees, tax exemptions could be applied to it, covered by the same fund. These are just a few examples of incentives.

Free movement of individuals should allow for the entire EU to develop evenly. The foundations for the future development of the new EU member states have been laid; now all that is needed is those who would fundamentally change these countries.

This must be done as soon as possible because what Eastern Europeans no longer have is time. Only those, who lived in the West and think along more Western lines can form the conditions for this decisive leap forward. A leap, which will finally unite the divided Old Continent.

Europe will finally begin breathing with both its lungs, but requires the active participation of the European Union. Let us encourage our countrymen, wandering through the desert of Western Europe, to return home and contribute to the new EU countries’ decisive leap forward!


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was be published in Lithuanian on 15min (click here to read) and on the author’s website, the Lithuanian Tribune.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Founder, Editor-in-Chief of the Lithuania Tribune news portal

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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