Europe Opens its Gates – Slowly

Demographic change and globalisation are forcing legal migration onto the EU agenda. Daniela Schröder reports from Brussels

Passport control sign (photo: AP)
Controlled migration: The EU Commission is pressing for eases on immigration for highly qualified workers from outside the EU

​​Labour shortages in the 27 EU states are well on their way as Europe is about to face an unprecedented change in its population structure. By the year 2030, Europe will have a shortage of 20 million inhabitants of working age, according to EU Commission estimates. By 2050 there could be a 65 million shortfall.

To ensure economic growth and prosperity in global competition, the EU Commission is pressing for eases on immigration for highly qualified workers from outside the EU. The main focus is on the African states. To recruit staff from Africa, the EU Commissioner of Justice Franco Frattini is planning a European version of the US work permit or 'green card'.

His 'blue card' concept plans to grant qualified foreign workers, particularly young people, a two-year fast-track work permit. This permit would be extended, and could be converted into permanent EU residency after five years. The regulations would apply across the whole of the EU, providing for wages above the national minimal income.

Frattini has not set out any statistics for desired immigration levels. The EU states would continue to decide independently how many workers they choose to allow in from abroad.

The national governments' sensitivities

But the proposal is nevertheless controversial. When it comes to residency and labour laws, the national governments are extremely sensitive. At the EU summit last December, chaired by the then EU Council President Angela Merkel, the 27 heads of state and government agreed in principle to create new rules for targeted immigration of qualified and highly qualified workers.

The typical EU dilemma, however, is the question of how far the EU Commission is competent for the matter, as opening the labour markets is up to national governments.

Frattini had already raised the idea of the 'blue card' two years ago, only to face out-and-out rejection from the member states. At last January's meeting of the EU justice ministers in Dresden, he announced that he would be launching a second initiative this autumn.

"Highly qualified workers are needed in Europe, and public acceptance for these groups of immigrants is at its highest," says Steffen Angenendt, an expert on migration for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, (SWP). However, it is not clear which qualifications are regarded as high, medium or low. "There is no binding definition in the EU."

The European Parliament also wants to know precisely what the commission means by highly qualified workers. Definitions and needs in the EU countries are just as diverse as the national rules on the recognition of training certificates, a new parliamentary paper on legal immigration points out.

African nursing staff for an aging Europe?

MEPs are also calling for an EU work permit for the tourism industry, agriculture and construction – these industries would collapse without foreign workers in many member states. The commission intends to propose suitable regulations in the coming year. The EU also has to think about joint rules for the booming care sector, the parliament is urging.

The aging Europe will soon be unable to cover its growing demand for care staff from its own member states, according to migration researchers. This is another area in which the EU is looking to Africa. EU Commissioner Frattini, however, stresses that countries should not recruit specialist workers who play a key role in their home countries. There could be joint talks with the sending states on which areas the EU should not tap into.

Temporary immigration – discussed by the commission as 'circular migration' – could reduce the loss of well-trained and talented people, the infamous 'brain drain', in the affected nations.

Germany's interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) and his former French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy first prompted the debate on circular migration in October 2006. The idea was that non-EU nationals should be allowed to work in one EU country for a maximum of three to five years. They would not be allowed to bring family members and would have to return to their home countries after this period.

Filling gaps on the EU labour market

The EU Commission, in contrast, defines circular migration as repeated immigration of workers to fill gaps on the EU labour market in the short term. However, this version also entails temporary stays and an obligation to return home.

In return for temporary legal jobs, the non-European states are expected to help the EU to prevent illegal immigration and guarantee that they will take back all migrants who do not leave the EU of their own accord.

The circular model is a benefit for both sides, argues Frattini. Europe could cover its labour market demands in a flexible way, while the countries of origin would profit from the knowledge the temporary migrants gained in the EU and the money they earned.

Critics, however, regard the concept as a new version of the 1950s guest worker programmes, and point out that the workers recruited under these schemes did not return home after their contracts expired.

SWP's Angenendt suspects that concepts for repeat immigrants are more successful than those with one-off migration options. Short-term recruitment of seasonal staff is the best example, he explains.

Daniela Schröder

© 2007

Daniela Schröder is a freelance EU correspondent in Brussels.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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