In 2015, European public debate was dominated by the Syrian refugee crisis and migration from the Middle East. A couple of years previously, labor migration had been a common reaction to the economic crisis in Eastern Europe. Masses left their homes in search of employment abroad. In a national perspective, this mitigated the impact of the economic downturn. Without mass migration, unemployment and social tensions would have taken on far more daunting dimensions. Relative to the total population, Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania had by far the highest rates of migration. Since these three countries further reduced their rudimentary welfare systems after 2009, the connection between welfare provisions and migration seems clear. By contrast, fewer citizens left Hungary and Slovenia, countries with much higher welfare expenditure, for Western Europe, although the impact of the crisis was felt there, too.
Labor migration took place via contacts and networks that had existed before the crisis. But there was no long-established migration system analogous to the transatlantic emigration of Germans, Scandinavians, or Eastern European Jews in the nineteenth century. For political reasons, it was almost impossible to leave the Baltic states or Romania for the West before 1989. (Only members of the German minority were permitted to move to West Germany, and this on payment of a fee, not unlike a ransom.) East-West mobility from these countries and the entire eastern half of the continent is evidently a result of the neoliberal order. The first to migrate en masse were East Germans moving to West German states. They were followed beginning in the mid-nineties by around two million Poles heading west. Since the crisis of 2008–9, Romanians, Latvians, and Lithuanians have made up the largest groups of intra-European labor migrants.
In broad terms, these developments were the result of postcommunist societies gradually acquiring the human capital to be able to deal with economic crises without relying on the welfare state. In a sense, these populations have been conditioned by neoliberalism to be mobile and flexible, two key values of this ideology. Those who stay at home often try to survive in the traditional manner of subsistence farming—that is, with a few cows, a large vegetable garden, and occasional jobs.
In comparison to the new EU states, the Mediterranean societies of Europe are far less mobile. Today, the waves of guest workers arriving in Germany from these countries in the 1950s and ’60s are a distant memory. Spain and Italy have themselves become major immigration destinations since the nineties. Unlike Latvia or Romania, they had not experienced a phase of mass migration before the crisis. Social and cultural norms also play a role. With greater affluence than the new EU states and better welfare provisions, Mediterranean countries provide relatively stable security nets. Spanish and Italian families have tried to additionally cushion the effects of the crisis by, for instance, letting their unemployed offspring live at home. Before the crisis, it was common for young people to find their first job in their parents’ business or through family ties. Personal networks, then, take precedence over spatial mobility. Moreover child daycare is expensive and hard to find (at least in comparison with Germany, the Netherlands, or Scandinavia), and the state does not provide child allowance independent of income. These factors additionally increase young people’s reliance on family networks, confirming dependencies that conflict with neoliberal principles.
The labor migrants from the new EU states, in contrast, act in accordance with the neoliberal system. This offers little security, but encourages and rewards mobility across the European Union with far higher wages in Western Europe. By deciding to migrate for work, the citizens of the new EU countries are making “rational choices”—another key term in the practice of and philosophy behind neoliberalism—and placing pragmatism over emotional ties. The majority would stay at home if wages there were higher and job prospects better. Surveys have shown that financial considerations are the main motivation for migrating, with most interviewees expressing the intention to return home after a few years. However, this emotional bond has a best-before date: if migrants start to feel they are better off abroad, they revise their plans to return.21