Emigrating Greeks Prove the EU Is Working

Spiraling unemployment, biting austerity measures and political uncertainty have led to an upsurge in Greeks quitting the country for sunnier economic climes.

View over the caldera of Santorini in Greece.
Tom Pfeiffer | Getty Images
View over the caldera of Santorini in Greece.

But while some analysts lament the impact on Greek society, as well as the economy, others say a rise in intra-European Union migration is just a consequence of the bloc's natural tendency towards convergence.

The right of citizens to “move and reside freely within the EU” is enshrined in European law, but currently only 3 percent of working-age citizens do so. As a comparison, non-EU nationals account for around 5 percent of the EU’s working-age population.

However, large differences in unemployment rates between EU members mean that migration could solve the region’s dual problems of high unemployment in countries such as Greece, and skills shortages in others.

Unemployment has remained notably low in countries such as Austria, the Netherlands and Germany, where jobless rates stood respectively at 4.1 percent, 4.3 percent and 6.2 percent in 2011. In contrast, nearly 22 percent of Greeks are currently unemployment, including over 50 percent of young people.

In its March reports on the EU and the euro zone, the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) recommended that “remediable” administrative bars to intra-Europe migration be lifted to help combat the mismatch of supply and demand for labor.

“High unemployment, particularly among young people, and low labor mobility coexist with skill and labor shortages in other regions… Greater mobility between EU countries would help meet imbalances in demand and supply, as well as making it easier for workers and firms to make the right job matches,” the reports said.

Another Country's Gain

Lois Labrianidis, professor of economic geography at the University of Macedonia in Northern Greece and a specialist in Greek migration, said Greece’s loss was another country’s gain when its citizens migrate.

“If a country is going to lose its labor, particular its most educated labor, it is going to be a major blow,” said Labrianidis. “But it is very beneficial for the individuals and for the receiving country. The more educated they are, the better it is for the receiving country.”

Newly qualified medical doctors for instance are increasingly looking to Germany, which suffers from shortages of medics in certain specializations.

“Normally German hospitals do not have the full quota of doctors, so they open the door to other European citizens. There are many Greek doctors in Germany; they go for a two- or three-year temporary contract, and then gain a permanent one. It is like an internship, quite a good internship that is paid well,” said George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), a not-for-profit think tank.

In the past, Greeks entering medical school could assume a job awaited them on graduation. However, Greece’s public sector hiring freeze means some doctors are now forced to work without pay.

The head of general and colorectal surgery at Henry Dunant hospital in Athens, Constantinos Mavrantonis, told CNBC that hospital staff had received no pay for five months, despite the introduction of a 15 percent pay cut in February.

In such circumstances, migration becomes an increasingly appealing prospect, said Tzogopoulos. “They start working for free in Greece, but after they have worked for seven or eight months without getting a salary, they start looking at alternatives.”

— By CNBC.com's Katy Barnato