by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 11
November 2021

The New York Times’ fake ‘Brexit brain drain’

Will the Grey Lady ever get its facts right about the UK?
by Peter Franklin
The New York Times building is seen on June 30, 2020 in New York City. – The New York Times has become the highest-profile media organization to leave Apple News, saying the tech giant’s service was not helping achieve the newspaper’s subscription and business goals. The daily’s exit comes as news organizations around the world struggle with declining print readership and an online environment where ad revenue is dominated by Google and Facebook. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

As previously noted on UnHerd, the New York Times does love a pop at Britain — and Brexit in particular. For instance, from earlier this year, we have this apocalyptic report, which helped spread the “plague island” label. Cheers for that.

The newspaper’s latest dispatch from the Brexit battle-lines is a feature on the British entrepreneurs setting-up business in Estonia. 

There’s some interesting tidbits in there about how this innovative Baltic state — already famous for its e-governance and e-voting — is now using e-residency to attract foreign investment. However, the focus on British business people provides yet another chance to catastrophise Brexit.

Admittedly, the UK’s departure has led to many British businesses registering in EU countries to get round new regulatory hurdles. For some of them Estonian e-residency certainly is an attractive option. But does this really amount to a “brain drain” as the NYT suggests?

For a start it worth pointing out that the worst fears about Brexit have not come to pass. The UK financial sector, for instance, has not decamped en masse for Paris or Frankfurt. Though net migration from the EU to the UK fell following the referendum result and before Covid, it was still positive.

Is Estonia an exception? It’s hard to establish definitive figures, but there are something like 15,000 Estonians living in the UK and less than a thousand Brits living in Estonia. Of course, the online nature of the e-residency scheme means that you don’t physically have to move. But, if British companies are making good use of that, what’s the problem? I wouldn’t describe British entrepreneurs doing business with Europe from Britain as a loss to this country.

By coincidence, the idea of a British brain drain has been reinforced by a chart that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter this week:

It shows the number of highly educated migrants to OECD countries by country of birth. Britain comes fourth the global rankings, behind only India, China and the Philippines. So is this the evidence we’re looking for?

Again, it’s certainly not proof of a Brexit brain drain — because these OECD figures (the latest available) date back to 2015/16. A likelier explanation is that this is a language effect —  in particular, the result of the UK’s close links with other English-speaking nations.

Of course, the Covid pandemic has disrupted migration patterns around the world. So it’s hard to say where we’ll be once the dust settles. What we can be certain about is that migration from the UK to the EU will either be up or down. If it’s up, then it will be portrayed as a brain drain. If it’s down, then it will be lamented as a loss of opportunity for British workers. Either way, Brexit will be blamed. 

Join the discussion

  • The NYT is a hopeless case.
    As for blaming Brexit for absolutely everything, from any kind of migration pattern to the fact that someone stubbed their toe this morning in Pontefract – I think we’ve just got to get settled in for the long haul, as this tendency is not going to go anywhere quickly.
    My approach is: identify the sources of the perma-whinging and either avoid or carefully steer the conversation away from known “triggers”.

  • Soon you will find headlines like “ WWII bomber found on the moon” and “Hitler was born a woman” on the front pages of New York Times. Just let it be.

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