Blue card changes, which do not apply to UK, part of plans also aimed at stemming migration from Africa and Middle East
The EU executive has announced proposals to attract more qualified foreigners to work in Europe as part of a wider effort to fill skills gaps and stem migrant flows.
In an attempt to breathe new life into the EU’s blue-card scheme – a work permit programme modelled on the US green card but which has not enjoyed the same success – the European commission said it wanted to open it up to people who were not EU nationals but had an offer of a job paying an average salary.
Currently, blue cards are only given to non-EU nationals who will earn one and half times the average wage in the EU country where they plan to move.
The proposals, which do not apply to the UK, Ireland or Denmark, are a way of trying to boost the “insufficiently attractive and underused” programme, under which fewer than 14,000 blue cards were granted in 2014, most of them by Germany.
“The revised EU blue card scheme will make it easier and more attractive for highly skilled third-country nationals to come and work in the EU and strengthen our economic growth,” said Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner in charge of migration.
The commission also said on Tuesday it hoped to offer poorer countries in Africa and the Middle East €62bn (£48bn) in exchange for stemming migrant flows, a plan that could see the EU making deals with some repressive regimes.
Although the UK has stood on the sidelines of Europe’s refugee crisis and does not take part in the blue card scheme, the leave campaign seized on both proposals ahead of Britain’s EU referendum on 23 June.
“It is an unholy mess,” said the Labour MP Gisela Stuart. “The plan appears to be to open our borders ever wider – extending access to the European labour market to the yet more war zones [sic].”
Janice Atkinson, a former Ukip MEP who is now an independent, said: “The essence of the migration compact is the eagerness of the EU to hand more taxpayers’ money to African despots to stop the migrants coming to Europe.”
The changes to the blue card programme – which include cutting the maximum application processing time from 90 to 60 days – will have to be agreed by EU member states.
Pierre Vimont, a former head of Europe’s diplomatic service, told the Guardian recently that the EU would have to find ways to promote legal migration, as people from north African countries would continue to make their way to Europe.
“Some say not enough jobs in Europe,” he said. “But the pressure will still be there and those economic migrants will try to find ways of moving into Europe so we have to be prepared to face that challenge in the months and years ahead.”
In an attempt to stem the flow of refugees and migrants, the EU struck a controversial deal with Turkey in March which has seen the number of people attempting to reach Europe via the Aegean fall by 95%, according to the UN refugee agency.
The European commission said on Tuesday it wanted to reach migration “compacts” with 16 countries in Africa and the Middle East, with the aim of preventing people from making perilous sea crossings. The commission hoped to use €3.1bn from the EU budget to encourage further contributions from private investors and member states.
It wanted to offer “priority countries” in Africa, the Middle East and Asia a mix of sticks and carrots to cajole them to do more to prevent people migrating to Europe.
Although the numbers attempting the Aegean route have dropped, the flow of people crossing the western Mediterranean to Italy continues unabated: about 46,000 arrived in Italy during the first five months of 2016 and at least 880 people have died in a spate of shipwrecks and capsizings, according to the UNHCR.
The EU hopes to finalise deals in the coming weeks with Jordan and Lebanon, who are taking in a large number of Syrian refugees. Tunisia, Nigeria and Senegal are next in line, while other priority countries include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As the Guardian reported, the plan includes the EU’s “Better Migration Management” project, a €46m plan targeted at countries in the Horn of Africa, including Sudan and Eritrea.
Documents that came to light last December suggested this plan could involve sending cars, cameras and possibly aircraft to the Sudanese government, as well as training for Eritrean judges, whom the UN accuses of aiding and abetting President Isaias Afwerki’s despotic regime in Asmara.
The commission has said there are no plans to send equipment to Sudan “at this stage”.
The EU executive said it would like to offer African and Middle Eastern countries a share of €62bn, but was relying on private investors and EU member states to put up the bulk of the money. Around €3.1bn from the EU budget has been earmarked to fund loan guarantees and trigger development bank lending to take the sum to €31bn. The rest would come from voluntary contributions from EU member states.
African and Middle Eastern countries would only get these funds by meeting the EU’s migration goals. Strings could also be attached to development aid, trade and other policies.
A paper published on Tuesday made clear that nothing was off the table. “No policy areas should be exempted from this approach. All EU policies including education, research, climate change, energy, environment, agriculture, should in principle be part of a package, bringing maximum leverage to the discussion.”
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the proposal amounted to “a Copernican revolution” in the use of Europe’s foreign policy budget. She predicted a boost to prosperity across Africa as a result: “[It is] a proposal that tackles migratory flows that also constitutes an opportunity for development for an entire continent,” she said. “There could be significant consequences for European stability as a consequence.”
But sceptics said the plans could promote the misuse of EU development aid. “Developing countries could receive funds intended for development aid to tighten their borders,” said Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP in the European parliament’s Green group. “Much-needed funds for the poor are thus being misused and, as a result, the commission’s proposals fail to deal with the actual reasons why people migrate in the first place.”
She said the proposals meant “the outsourcing of the EU’s responsibilities to countries where basic protection of human rights is not guaranteed”, naming Eritrea and Somalia.
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal group in the European parliament, said: “The best way to fight human traffickers is to create a legal way for people to come to Europe. The proposal for the revision of the blue card is certainly an improvement compared to the current system; but that was not so difficult. The commission proposal will in reality keep 28 national systems in place, while we need one simple system.”
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