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The Costs of a Brexit Brain Drain

Mass emigrations of skilled workers have always been a byproduct of broader ideological and political struggles, and the looming departure of talent from the United Kingdom is no different. But never before has an established democracy experienced a catastrophic loss of human capital during a period of peace and prosperity.

MILAN – Should the United Kingdom go through with its withdrawal from the European Union, one of the most severe unintended consequences will probably be the exodus of a significant share of top professionals from London. In fact, Paris, Frankfurt, Dublin, Amsterdam, and other cities on the Old Continent are already competing to attract UK-based bankers, doctors, architects, and academics.

Such “brain drains” are common in history. But never before has an established democracy experienced a catastrophic loss of human capital during a period of peace and prosperity. Usually, it takes a sudden regime change, violent conflict, or dire economic conditions to send a country’s professional elite fleeing en masse.

For example, many intellectuals have left Turkey in recent years as a result of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian government. In Greece during the sovereign debt crisis, high-skill workers were driven out by the lack of economic opportunity. And in Nazi Germany, Jews and other gifted but oppressed minorities were forced to seek refuge abroad.

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