Javier Conde is an aerospace engineer, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it was time to pack up and move to a foreign land hundreds of miles away.
Back in Madrid, where he worked at the Spanish equivalent of NASA, Conde knew that government funding cuts were about to hit the agency and that his position was unlikely to survive. Add to that the fact that already nearly 1 in 4 Spaniards is looking for work, and a man used to complex calculations did a bit of simple math. He knew the time had come to jump ship.
So in June, Conde took a job at an engineering firm here in Hamburg, becoming one of the thousands who have fled the economically slumping nations of Southern Europe in recent months for Germany, the region’s star economic performer, in pursuit of better prospects.
“It’s the right moment and the right place,” said Conde, 27, a Canary Islands native. “I have tried to work in Spain where I wanted to work, and I couldn’t.”
His decision was made possible by the freedom of movement that’s one of the core principles of the European Union. But as the stream of internal EU migrants like Conde grows, so have fears of a brain drain from Europe’s stragglers to nations such as Germany, a worrisome example of the strong getting stronger at the expense of the weak.
In Spain, residents are struggling with the country’s worst jobless rate in 15 years (it’s also Europe’s highest). The situation is particularly dire for people younger than 25, half of whom are out of work as the continent’s debt crisis drags into its third year.
In contrast, Germany celebrated its lowest unemployment rate in more than two decades — a mere 6.8% — in December, though there’s been a slight uptick since then. In fact, the shortage of skilled workers in some fields has become so acute that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a visit to Spain last year, made an open call for Spanish engineers to come work in her country.
The number of Spaniards relocating to Germany in the first half of last year shot up by 49%, or 2,400 more people, compared with the same period in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available. For Greeks, whose ravaged economy is caught in a steep downward spiral, the increase was even greater, a whopping 84%.
Enough new settlers arrived in 2011, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, that Germany reported a rise in its population for the first time in eight years.
Looked at one way, Germany’s influx of newcomers is an excellent demonstration of the EU doing exactly what it was supposed to do: break down trade barriers across the continent and promote economic integration by allowing citizens to live and work where they choose.
That mobility can be especially helpful during hard times such as these, when jobs are scarce in some areas but not others, said Michael C. Burda, an expert on the European labor market at Humboldt University of Berlin.
“It’s like the United States,” he said. “When you have shock in different parts of the union, one way to smooth things out is to have people move around.”
From another perspective, though, the situation appears less benign.
At a time of deepening economic distress for the debt-laden nations on Europe’s periphery, some of their best and brightest are leaving. Last year, Ireland, a land with bitter memories of mass emigration brought on by famine, was estimated to be losing 1,000 residents a week to other countries the world over because of its economic woes.
The fact that many migrants pick Germany is salt in the wound for some.
Not only is Germany, on the basis of its economic strength, already the boss of Europe, but now it seems to be profiting from its neighbors’ troubles — troubles compounded by the austerity cuts that Berlin insists its indebted Eurozone partners carry out. Merkel’s appeal to Spanish engineers to ditch their country in favor of Germany seems almost like “an act of aggression” to some, Burda said.
Volker Littkowski isn’t afraid to acknowledge that he’s capitalizing on other countries’ weaknesses.
Littkowski manages recruitment for the northern German operations of Ferchau Engineering, a well-established firm that does major business with Airbus Industrie, the European jet-building consortium. In April, in need of engineers, Ferchau set up booths at job fairs in the southern Spanish city of Seville and in Madrid.
“In the daily news, it was more or less repeated that the unemployment rate in Spain, in particular the young generation, is incredibly high,” Littkowski said. “That’s why we decided to go to Spain, to make use of their ‘weakness’ to take advantage of the situation.”
The company hired five people, including Conde, the former worker at Spain’s space agency. Another recruit was Eduardo Gomez, 24, a newly minted college graduate who sees the movement of so many young Spaniards abroad as a win-win situation.
“If we stay, we just increase the number of people in unemployment,” Gomez said. “Now the situation is quite terrible. I think I could find a job, but not in the same circumstances.”
A saving grace for Spain, and for other countries in a similar position, is that many emigres intend to return one day. That makes sense considering the linguistic, historical, culinary and even climatic disparities across the 27-member states of the European Union.
“The cultural differences are so great,” Burda said. “If people do migrate, it’s probably for a short- to medium-term gain, and that profits everybody, because then they’ll go back.”
Gomez intends to return, “perhaps in two years, perhaps in 10, perhaps in 20,” he said. “I’m quite patriotic.”
But his new life in Hamburg has been an excellent adventure (except for the weather), a place to meet new people, to get to know a new city and country, whose residents have been very welcoming. He encourages friends at home to follow in his footsteps, for professional and for his own selfish reasons.
“Angela Merkel said Germany needs many, many engineers, especially from Spain,” Gomez said. “For me, it’s perfect if they come. More new people, more Spanish girls.”
Special correspondent Aaron Wiener in Berlin contributed to this report.