Fairer EU research funding needed to halt brain drain: Croatia minister

Blaženka Divjak, Croatia's minister of science and education. [EU2017EE Estonian Presidency / Flickr]

Cash from the EU’s research funds must be spread beyond the “old men’s club” of prestigious institutions in richer member states to curb the brain drain exacerbating inequalities across the bloc, a Croatian minister said on Thursday (9 January).

The EU needs to figure out “how to really support freedom of movement but at the same time… not to have some countries where we don’t have potential for innovation or growth,” said Blaženka Divjak, minister of science and education.

She was speaking to reporters in Zagreb as her country — the last to join the European Union in 2013 — takes its turn as host of the EU rotating presidency.

Alongside other newer and poorer EU members like Romania and Bulgaria, Croatia has struggled to keep its young and educated at home, with huge numbers moving to wealthier capitals in the European Union for higher pay.

Divjak spoke about a divide between the newer and older member states, saying that Brussels needs to stop focusing on the “old men’s club that we sometimes witness in some projects when we are competing for EU money”.

Research and innovation funds should “not just (go to) those that have prestige right now,” she said.

Far better is to build up “heterogenous”, or diverse, networks drawn from across Europe, encouraging “teams with different backgrounds, different ideas,” she added.

Croatia’s government calls the emigration exodus it is experiencing an “essential” problem for the country of 4.2 million — an outflow mirrored in other member states to the EU’s east, where faster-growing economies struggle to find sufficient workers.

According to the EU’s statistics office, 15% of working-age Croats now live in other member states, the second highest proportion after Romania.

Up to 300,000 Croatians have gone abroad since 2013, experts estimate. The EU’s freedom of movement rules mean its citizens face almost no obstacles if they want to go to any of the member states for work.

“Croatia suffers a population loss equivalent to losing a small city per year,” Prime Minister Andrej Plenković told reporters on Wednesday as he presented his country’s EU presidency.

He said that when he first raised the issue at the Sibiu summit during Romanian Presidency (May 2019), several leaders from other EU countries said their countries have similar problems, and that a EU response to the issue was needed.

Dubravka Šuica, the Croat commissioner in the von der Leyen Commission, is Vice President for Democracy and Demography, an unprecedented portfolio.

More than two-thirds of Croatians leave for economic reasons, while a secondary driver is frustration with widespread graft, according to a survey by Zagreb University.

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