Passivity, not labour restrictions, will likely stem Czech 'brain drain' to West

Charles University

Prague's Charles University is the oldest in the whole of Central Europe — having been founded in 1348 by Charles IV— so, even allowing for outbreaks of war and the bubonic plague, the venerable institution has been handing out diplomas for some 650 years. But what makes the "Class of 2004" unique is that this years' freshly minted graduates will also be citizens of the European Union, with the right to seek work in all 25 member states of the expanded EU, although most of the original 15 have imposed some restrictions.

I caught up with some Czech students at a recent job fair hosted by Charles University and asked them whether they'd be taking advantage of their new status as "European citizens" and seek employment abroad.

"It would be great, but I can't work this year because, you know, I haven't graduated yet — and it will probably take me quite a long time to graduate! But I thought that it would be nice to see the opportunities if... there were any."

"Umm, I thought about this ... to work abroad, but I think I'm not able to. The main problem is my language skills."

Freedom of movement is one of the founding principles of the Common Market of the European Community — and the possibility to freely seek work across borders is one of the most tangible assets of European integration.

Photo: European Commission
But only Britain, Ireland and Sweden are now fully open to Czech jobseekers. Ahead of the "big bang" of EU expansion, the other 12 older members got cold feet and restricted access to their labour markets for the next two to seven years.

Gunter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, told Radio Prague that the restrictions were inevitable but very temporary measures.

"It was absolutely clear that in some member states the psychological barrier was too high to accept the accession of 10 new member states if there was no safeguard for their labour markets. My personal view is that the whole problem will disappear in less than two years."

Be that as it may, many Czechs, looking forward to equal status in the EU, felt betrayed by the restrictions.

"I was quite disappointed by the current situation. I think it's not such a big problem; you have to obtain some permission to work in these countries, but... it was quite a disappointment for me."

Despite the restrictions imposed by EU governments, employers from Western Europe are actively recruiting in the Czech Republic, says Vera Kolmerova, an expert from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs who addressed students at the job fair. To get the right candidate foreign companies will cut through the bureaucratic red tape, she says.

"There are some restriction measures... But in labour markets there are some gaps and from these [EU] countries they call 'help us, we need your workers' and so on, so on. And they find some ways how to employ our workers."

Studies by the European Commission show that only 1 per cent of the working population of the 10 new EU member countries would be likely to ever migrate to the West. The majority of them are young and well educated, sparking fears in the East of a possible "brain drain".

Petr Zahradnik
But polls here show that the relatively affluent Czechs are among the least likely to leave home. Most only want to work abroad only for a short while, gain some valuable experience, and then return home with their pockets full of euros. Such as this student of mathematics:

"It may be that for some years I want to go abroad, but I think I want to come back then to Prague."

Petr Zahradnik, who heads the EU office for the retail bank Ceska Sporitelna, says that his research confirms that the Czechs are rather provincial in character, reluctant to seek work even 30 kilometres away from home, let alone in a foreign country.

"The Czech nation is not very active and to travel for work is sometimes a barrier. It's connected with some kind of general passivity."