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Will More Italians Vote With Their Feet?

Roughly 5.5 million Italians – 8% of the country's population – currently reside abroad, with 1.5 million having left since 2007. The results of the recent election are likely to convince even more of Italy's best and brightest that they would be better off leaving.

MILAN – Italy’s inconclusive general election, with its clear populist drift, will likely lead to a prolonged period of political stalemate, freezing the adoption of much-needed structural reforms. But the deadlock, and the related perception that the country is unwilling to change, might have another chilling effect. It will push more of Italy’s top talent abroad, exacerbating a trend that has plagued the country for more than a decade.

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Since 2007, almost 1.5 million Italians have left the country, joining four million other expats. To put the number in perspective, roughly 8% of the Italian population currently resides abroad. But the actual figure could be higher. Italian expats refrain from declaring to national authorities their true residential status to preserve their access to benefits like free health care.

Around one-third of these émigrés hold university degrees. Many are highly qualified professionals working in finance, consulting, academia, architecture, or law. And stories about Italian entrepreneurs who found successful companies in the world’s Silicon Valleys are legion.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the main magnets. London, is said to be Italy’s fifth-largest city – after Rome, Milan, Naples, and Turin – with roughly 250,000 Italians. Not even Brexit has halted immigration from Italy, contrary to the prevailing trends in Western Europe. This is a clear symptom of the dissatisfying conditions back home, where a rigid labor market, inadequate funding for academic research and start-ups, and a socioeconomic system biased toward the old prevent individuals from expressing their full potential.

But Italy is not just losing skilled, ambitious, and visionary workers. Its intellectual elite is pouring out of the country, too. OECD data for the years 1996-2011 show that, among the largest European countries, Italy is a net contributor of scientists to the rest of the world. Making matters worse, it trades researchers with a track record of highly significant publications for mediocre ones.

In economics, seven of the eight recipients of the Carlo Alberto Medal, which is awarded biennially to an outstanding Italian economist under the age of 40, were teaching in elite foreign universities. And when one looks at the very top of the talent distribution, the situation is even more disheartening. With few exceptions, Italian recipients of Nobel prizes, the Fields Medal in mathematics, the Pritzker Prize in architecture, or the Breakthrough Prize in life sciences have spent their careers abroad.

The loss for the country is twofold. First, those who leave are usually educated in Italy at government expense: around $600,000 for the full school career of each college graduate. It is as if the country had lost 4-5 percentage points of GDP each year since 2007. Second, because expats are usually the least satisfied with the status quo, Italy loses the most likely agents of change – those who would disrupt a stagnant economy and push the technology frontier outward.

If Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, succeeds in pushing for a government of national unity, he should put the brain drain problem at the top of the political agenda, along with the labor market, the financial sector, and the pension system. Being an issue of national concern, no political force would obstruct it. And to prove the government’s commitment to the issue, the next prime minister should expand the government team by appointing a diaspora minister.

Ideally, Italy should reverse the brain drain by adopting the necessary reforms to retain and re-attract its own talent. But, even if the current parliamentary constellation were more reform-minded, the effects of such measures would materialize only in the long term. The diaspora ministry should focus instead on short-term fixes, like engagement policies and leveraging expats’ emotional attachment to their homeland. Even from afar, they can contribute to Italy’s renewal by increasing the flow of knowledge, money, and innovation back home, promoting the national interest internationally, connecting local businesses with the global market, and helping build partnerships with research centers or private companies abroad. And one day, if true change happens, they might even decide to return home.

The new ministry should map the diaspora and compile detailed profiles of the skills and expertise possessed by Italy’s top minds abroad. Thus, it would be possible to assess the severity of the brain drain, build a bridge with potential employers at home, and involve the most successful émigrés in philanthropic and mentorship projects. In addition, the government should organize on a regular basis formal events with expats and exploit their ideas and experience to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and the growth of key industries.

Ireland represents the best source of inspiration for such a program. Since 2009, Ireland has maintained a program called “Global Irish” to promote engagement with the country’s massive diaspora through the establishment of an ad-hoc ministry and the adoption of targeted measures like the Global Irish Economic Forum. Ireland’s impressive recovery from the financial crisis a decade ago would have not been possible without the support, recommendations, and engagement of its diaspora.

For too long, Italy has ignored its brain drain. Paradoxically, the current stalemate provides an excellent opportunity to address it.;

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