From departure to return, we are witnessing the birth of new global Slovakia. One Slovak at a time, writes Zuzana Palovic
In 2004 the European Union began a wave of enlargements, which expanded the borders of the Schengen into the former Eastern bloc. Over 100 million Eastern Europeans have since gained visa-free, passport-less access to the West. The tearing down of borders represented an emotional return to Europe. It healed an artificial divide that scarred the continent. For over 40 years, there was essentially no history of free migration, between East and West. Today, our country is the only Central European economy in the Eurozone. Fully integrated, the EU presidency gives us the opportunity to celebrate our achievements in an enlarged Europe.
We are a young nation, but old people
For starters; Slovakia’s gold medal worthy performance has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The world stands amazed at our resilience. Once dubbed the black hole of Europe, we are now a top reformer. The world’s largest car producer (per capita), we are also the fastest growing member in the Eurozone (2004-2014). We offer investors the best conditions for doing business in Central Eastern Europe according to the World Bank, alongside the highest productivity. Yet, we remain forever self-critical of our flaws. Deep corruption, hordes of red tape, dysfunctional health care and education systems plague our society. Without a doubt, these are target areas for improvement. However, there is more to our country than its shortcomings. Less than 25 years into independence, our youthful nation deserves its praise. Slovakia is an emerging leader at the heart of Europe.
Freedom of movement and the re-unification of a continent
European Union membership opened doors to a whole new world. It marked a turning point in our history. Overnight, Slovakia grew from a market of 5 to 500 million. We gained the freedom to move, including the right to live, work and study anywhere in Europe. What would have been an inconceivable act of treason just one generation ago, has become the everyday reality. Over 300,000 Slovaks, 10% of our active labor force resides abroad. Slovak students fill the ranks of foreign universities, more than any other country in Europe. From low to high-skilled professions, we leave an impact on the world. Each international success helps to raise the profile of our country. Yet, one question remains. What happens when international Slovaks return?
Migration: a driver to human evolution
Mobility is a primal expression of human nature. Our ancestors would roam the land in search food. They would eventually leave the rift valley of Africa and expanded into new continents. The rise of agriculture saw the expansion of civilization. Modern humans became much more sedentary, yet new migration paths emerged. Wide-scale trade, like the Silk Road, brought merchants into contact with exotic regions. New interactions gave way to the expansion of empires, and later colonization. From the Vikings to the Romans, from the Ottomans through to the Anglos, past population movements influenced the DNA of modern nations. Yet migration distributes more than just people.
Migration: a vehicle for learning
Just like international students travel to Britain or the United States to attend world leading universities. So they did in the past. Ancient Egypt was one of the most advanced civilizations on our planet. Allegedly, Hippocrates, Pythagoras and Socrates studied under the tutorship of Egyptian Masters. Some scholars argue that the Greek Enlightenment was influenced by the transfer of knowledge between civilizations. Later, the European Renaissance and Scientific Revolution were spurred by similar activity. South Italy and Spain became the major gateways of Islamic knowledge into Europe. The renowned Oxford and Paris universities, today’s world class centers of learning, were set up by returning and inspired scholars.
Migration: the circulation of knowledge
Knowledge is critical to evolution, development and innovation would not be possible without it. New ideas from irrigation to electricity, to human rights and democracy have changed the way we live. Yet, ideas originate in the brains of people. Developed countries understand that knowledge travels through humans, and not documents. The global talent war reflects the modern economic competition to secure the best talent. Rich countries attract brains to make their economies grow. Poor countries lose their best doctors, scientists and engineers in search of better pay and conditions. Yet, migrants only make up a small portion of the global population. Out of 7 billion human beings, only 3% live outside their country of birth.
Migration: from brain drain to brain gain
The Slovak Diaspora, much larger than the global average, represents the departure of some of our best brains. However, research shows that half of post-accession migrants are back in Eastern Europe at any given time. Diaspora, taken from the Jewish exodus, refers to the scattering of seeds. Their return symbolizes their potential sowing. China and India have done this exceedingly well. Return migrants quickly move up the ranks of government and business. They help drive the economy, bringing in billions of dollars of new revenue. What kind of growth is possible when we engage the international Slovak community? Smart young professionals living abroad are armed with globally competitive tools. Languages, knowledge, skills and networks that make the world turn and money flow.
Towards a Global Slovakia
The supply of new incoming talent is already meeting growing demand. Slovak-based multinational corporations eagerly absorb these brains. In an economy where startups are looking to transition into international markets, it is in fact local businesses that can benefit the most. These youngsters are the golden ticket. Cheaper than expats, they can get the job done just as well. They are a source of new perspectives, capable of comparing Slovakia to the world and identifying not only what is wrong, but also what is great about our country. Cosmopolitan yet proud of their homeland, they come back to evoke change. Just a minority, they embody a burst of energy and confidence that is a breath of fresh air. From departure to return, we are witnessing the birth of new global Slovakia. One Slovak at a time.
(Zuzana Palovic is a researcher, academic and writer. Born in Bratislava but raised in the West, she is the daughter of Slovak emigrants. This article first appeared in The Slovak Spectator)