Post-Brexit edition: Dispatches’ 2020 list of Europe’s 5 best cities for expats

For expats, there was Europe before Brexit and coronavirus and there’s Europe after Brexit and coronavirus, and they’re two very different places.

Brexit has started one of the most dramatic transfers of global talent in history, moving executives and managers to Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt and other European financial centers from London.

Those cities are on the receiving end of an ongoing migration of talent as multinationals choose doing business with the European Union over the closing borders of the United Kingdom. The Netherlands alone has landed about 400 companies, and the influx is pushing up housing costs from Paris to Frankfurt.

While this is happening, coronavirus is revealing the structural failings of societies such as Italy and, to some extent, the United Kingdom.

For those of us in the global mobility of talent business, we have to work harder to give English-speaking internationals information about innovation centers, and that begins and ends with housing in TwentyTwenty.


Our mantra has always been – and always will be – “If you’re a highly skilled international, where can you have it all … affordable and plentiful housing, great quality of life and terrific career opportunities?”

But, where exactly are these magical cities?

Mostly in the Netherlands and Belgium, because these are booming economies where the cost of living doesn’t seem to have caught up … yet.

The expat conundrum? The most exciting cities are Barcelona, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm. Of course, everyone wants to live there. Which means they’re priced off our lists since a high cost of living and wildly expensive housing tends to deplete your disposable fun money.

A few changes

To meet changing circumstances, our data-driven ranking criteria have changed since 2016. We used to require that cities be in the EU. But we’re waiving that because we believe that Emerging Europe increasingly is the place to be. In the past, we had Leipzig and other cities on the lists, but we’ve had a lot of feedback that unless you speak fluent German, these aren’t practical options for expats who aren’t working for multinational corporations.

Finally, we’ve also included cities with fast-growing and promising economies such as Bucharest. But consulting our expat network, many of whom come from Emerging Europe countries such as Romania, Macedonia and Greece, they advise us that corruption in most of the Balkans and Eastern Europe intrudes on the lives of citizens to the point there is an increasing outflow of talent to Western Europe and Scandinavia.

For 2020, cities are ranked by six metrics, each worth 100 points:

• overall cost of living compared to London

• affordability of rents and a reasonable quality of life

• density of talent and serious career opportunities with a prominent university driving innovation and creating tomorrow’s talent as in the Silicon Valley model

• the percentage of people who speak English because it’s the language of business

• availability of international schools

• corruption: the fewer the problems, the higher the score

So, 600 would be a perfect score, which no city ever seems to achieve.

As we stated last year, the fact there are two Dutch cities on the list is no accident. The Netherlands wins in every category from prevalence of English to societal stability. But the Netherlands has issues when it comes to housing. The average house price just topped 500,000 euros. That’s because capital is pouring in. A record number – at least 397 – of international companies invested a total of 4.3 billion euros during 2019 here, creating more than 14,000 new jobs. At least one company based in Eindhoven, semiconductor giant ASML, hired about 5,000 during 2019.

Brexit is accelerating that trend, with hundreds of companies considering leaving London for Amsterdam and other Dutch cities should negotiations with the EU go awry.

So, what are the alternatives?

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