One of the four priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU which started in January 2018 is the future of Europe and young people. Paradoxically, Bulgaria has experience in motivating young people to seek a future elsewhere and to never return home.
According to the latest population projections by the United Nations, Bulgaria has the fastest shrinking population in the world: it is expected that by 2050, it will decrease by 23%. This is regrettable, but not surprising. Bulgaria has the highest mortality rate in the EU and the number of live births in the country continues to drop.
There is also a parallel story. Recently, researchers from the Bulgarian Academy of Science warned that there are more Bulgarians working abroad than in Bulgaria: 2.5 million work abroad and 2.2 million work in Bulgaria, to be precise. Moreover, 17% of those who graduate from high school in Bulgaria choose to pursue their university education abroad. It is likely they will stay there, too.
Many of the Bulgarians living away have acquired foreign citizenships. In fact, many of my friends who left Bulgaria to study elsewhere back in the day not only have foreign passports already, but also decided not to apply for Bulgarian citizenship for their children. A brief opinion poll I carried out on Twitter confirmed that Bulgarians are willing to give up their citizenship, especially if they acquire an “attractive” foreign passport (Figure 1).
Why do Bulgarians run away?
I am sure that in the 1990s and the 2000s Bulgarians were primarily motivated by better career prospects and better opportunities to learn. For instance, I left Bulgaria when I was 18 to pursue my university studies in the USA as I was convinced that US universities supported an environment that encouraged critical thinking and innovation — values in stark contrast to post-communist educational philosophy, which still prevails in Bulgaria.
I am also positive that many Bulgarians among those who left the country thought their move was temporary.
Yet, when did temporary become permanent?
Many of my friends attempted to return home after they earned their degrees and gained some experience overseas. However, most of them left Bulgaria 2 to 3 years after they had set foot in the country again. When I asked them what the main reason for this decision was, the common answer was — “The environment is unhealthy.”
Indeed, Bulgaria does not offer much. As I already emphasized in my article “The Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU: The Emperor Has No Clothes”, a long line of governments drove the country to a national catastrophe — weak economy, rampant corruption, declining FDI, and lack of rule of law characterize the Bulgarian landscape.
Reports, which came out after I published my article, add further nuances to the picture. For instance, a January 2018 paper by the IMF showcased that Bulgaria has the largest grey sector in the EU – it accounts of 29.2% of the country’s economy. Meanwhile, Bulgaria has the lowest standard of living in the EU per the Quality of Life Index 2018.
No strategy for young people
Of course, if we take a closer look at the picture, we will see something even more alarming – Bulgaria does not seem to have a viable strategy to educate and promote young people. A quick look at the last PISA scores show that Bulgarian students performed significantly below the OECD average in all categories: science, mathematics, reading, etc. Bulgaria is second to last in the EU based on the acquisition of foreign languages, too. Moreover, Bulgaria is second to last in the EU according to DESI (Digital Economy and Society Index), which amply shows that many people do not have basic digital skills and that there is no proper digital infrastructure.
It is also disturbing that according to Eurostat, Bulgaria has one of the lowest Research and Development Expenditures as Percentage of GDP in the EU. Furthermore, statistics by UNESCO amply demonstrate that Bulgaria has a relatively low researcher to inhabitant ratio compared to other states, including Romania (See Figure 2).
If you choose to innovate by yourself or establish a startup, you may face troubles, including expropriation. The latest International Property Rights Index ranked Bulgaria 85th in the world because of its disrespect for property rights. In its latest report, the World Justice Project, which measures the rule of law in 113 countries, ranked Bulgaria 55th behind countries like Botswana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Mongolia. There are a number of pending cases against Bulgaria for breaches of investor rights before ICSID, too. In addition, Bulgaria is a leader in losing cases before the ECtHR – 103 out of the 588 cases which Bulgaria has lost since 1992 when it ratified the ECHR involve violations of the fundamental right to private property. No wonder the Global Entrepreneurship Index, which measures the health of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in 139 countries, ranked Bulgaria 69th behind Kazakhstan, Morocco, Macedonia, etc.
Needless to say, Bulgaria has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the EU. It is also very difficult for qualified young people to work for the government sector – the country is traditionally plagued by scandals for recruitment based on nepotism rather than expertise. For instance, a few years ago it turned out that the head of a government fund had a fake university diploma, which she had submitted when she applied for the position — the scandal was uncovered by journalists significantly later.
Last but not least, government institutions are usually hostile to young Bulgarians educated abroad. I was personally surprised that while one of the key priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU is the future of young people, Bulgaria’s government deliberately refused to work along associations of young established Bulgarian professionals living overseas to prepare the agenda.
The need for drastic change
Clearly, Bulgaria setting the agenda for the future of young people in Europe is somewhat ironic and sends the wrong message. Unfortunately, just like previous governments, the current one is myopic and over focused on its own internal problems – if you follow Bulgarian politics, you would know that there is a new corruption rumor emerging on the surface every week. Moreover, a brief look at the qualifications, or lack thereof, of the current ministers is discouraging enough for anyone who believes in the value of education and merit. We need major changes, but before we wake up, it may be too late.
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