Germany Is Draining The Rest Of Europe's Talent - Why That's A Good Thing

Berlin's Sankt Oberholz cafe
Berlin's Sankt Oberholz cafe
Clemens Wergin


BERLIN - At the Sankt Oberholz café, Germany’s future lies in the balance. Here, in Berlin’s “trendy” Mitte district, an international crowd of entrepreneurial 20 and 30-somethings meet. They make up two camps.

On one side, you have those who prefer to speak English as they discuss their new projects and business plans. On the other side, you have the Italians – the Oberholz has become the meeting place for the Italian start-up scene in Berlin. The Italians have come to the German capital because there’s more creative freedom here than in Italy, where bureaucracy hinders new ventures and the recession takes care of the rest.

An aging German society can use all this young, well-educated talent. That’s why Germany’s Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, referred to a “stroke of fortune” when she recently presented the latest figures for migration to Germany.

More than a million people came to Germany last year. If you deduct the ones who left, that’s an increase of 369,000. There hasn’t been this many since 1995. However there’s no comparison between the people who came back then and the ones arriving now. In 1995, Germany’s economy was not in good shape; the country was still trying to digest the consequences of re-unification and unemployment was high – so immigrants were perceived more as a threat than anything else.

Eighteen years later, the economy is booming, unemployment compared to other European countries is remarkably low – and skilled talent on the workforce is dwindling. What’s more, the penny has dropped that in the face of an aging population, Germany can only keep up being a generous welfare state if immigration compensates for the low birth-rate.

More importantly – the type of immigrant has changed. For a long time, Germany attracted immigrants with low-level qualifications – people who stood the most chance of losing their job at some point and having to be helped out by the state.

According to the most recent study by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR), that situation has now reversed itself and the new immigrants are on average better educated than the native German population. Culturally they are also closer to Germans than earlier immigrants: most of them come from other European countries. The first non-European country on the list – occupying eighth place – is Turkey.

“America in Europe”

Unsurprisingly, many of the immigrants come from the southern European crisis-hit countries: there was a 45% increase in people from Spain, followed by Greeks and Portuguese (43% increase) and finally there were 40% more Italians.

In absolute numbers, however, immigrants from eastern European countries top the list. Since the collapse of Communism, Germany has slowly regained the role it enjoyed before the Nazi era as a cultural and economic magnet for Eastern Europe – something that is only encouraged by the presence of so many German companies in the region.

Anybody in Eastern Europe who is aiming for a successful career in a multinational company thinks of Germany in the same way they might think of the UK or the United States. For many young, well-educated Eastern Europeans, Germany is a country of opportunity where hard work and good performance can take you straight up the career ladder. In that sense, Germany is the smaller, geographically closer “America in Europe.”

And that fact is starting to hit home in southern European countries as well. However there is the language hurdle, and the fact that the education given at southern European universities and technical colleges often does not correspond to the needs of employers, contribute to the fact that – even in this mega-crisis – Europe so far does not really have a flexible job market.

Everybody wins when educated, but jobless, young people migrate to places where their skills are needed. The young people win because their horizons are broadened. Strong economies like Germany’s come out ahead because they can not only cover their needs for a skilled workforce but draw innovative talent. And in the end, the southern countries will win too when some of those immigrants return once the crisis is over, bringing with them professional experience, new ideas, and valuable contacts.

Germany, however, should not make the mistake of thinking that all this means it has found a magic formula for dealing with its demographic issues. The international start-up community that gathers at Berlin’s Sankt Oberholz café is made up of world citizens who can, just as quickly as they came to Germany, pull up stakes and move elsewhere if we make things difficult for them with bureaucratic hurdles, over-regulation, unfairly high taxation, or for that matter outbreaks of xenophobia.

The same goes for engineers and other well-qualified immigrants needed in the economic powerhouse that is southern Germany. It is only if we give them the feeling of being welcome, and needed, that we will succeed in drawing now, but also in the future, the inflow of smart talent essential for a healthy economy and prosperous future.

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