Belgium best-poised to attract non-EU ‘brains’

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Compared to other EU countries, Belgium scores highest when it comes to speeding up legal processes to attract highly-skilled workers, a study has found.

According to a biannual comparative study conducted by Deloitte in a number of EU countries, Belgium has streamlined immigration procedures to accelerate the delivery of work permits to highly-skilled non-Europeans, making it easier to bridge gaps in its employment market.

"Belgium is by no means sitting on its hands in terms of economic migration. The work of the Economic Migration Department, which was set up a few years ago, is now bearing fruit and in practical terms has regularly turned out to be of great value for many international companies operating in Belgium," said Matthias Lommers from Deloitte.

Even though the job vacancy rate for Belgium, which includes unmet demand for labour, is still slightly above the EU-27 average of 1.9 % – according to the Economic Migration Department – Belgium has developed an extensive set of active labour market programmes and Belgian regions have developed a dynamic and intricate detection system for labour market shortages.

In 2008, an Economic Migration Service (within the Immigration Office) was established to reduce the administrative burden for highly-skilled migrants and for investors.

Deloitte's comparative study shows that work permits in Belgium are issued within an average of three weeks. In Spain or Italy it can take up to six months. The country also continues to apply a very low earnings threshold for obtaining a work permit at €36,000, compared to roughly €65,000 in Germany.

According to the latest Eurostat survey, the share of permits granted in the EU in 2009 for employment – including researchers, highly-skilled and seasonal workers – was slightly lower than in 2008: 27.6% (646,000 permits), while that for permits granted for education purposes accounted for 21.8% of the total (510,000 permits).

Two years ago, the EU approved a continent-wide work permit, the so-called 'Blue Card', allowing high-skilled non-EU citizens to work and live in the EU. But the results of this are yet to be seen. "There is no all-emcompassing immigration policy that extends right across Europe," conceded Deloitte.

The lack of STEM-skilled labour (STEM standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) will be one of the main obstacles to economy growth in the coming years, reckons BusinessEurope, the leading European employers' organisation.

"The Blue Card is a step in the right direction, although conditions for admissions are too strict," said BusinessEurope in a recent report, although it points out that the attractiveness of Europe to skilled migrants should not be over-estimated, as only 3% of scientists in the EU are third-country nationals compared to 16% in the US.

The recent economic and eurozone debt crises have led many countries to pursue more restrictive policies and protectionist tendencies have increased in many European labour markets, particularly towards immigration of third-country nationals.

"In terms of labour markets, of course we need to improve training and the employability of our own nationals, but this will not be enough given the gravity of the demographic challenge that Europe is facing. Several sectors will be affected by severe labour market shortages," said Cecilia Malmström, EU commissioner for home affairs, in a commentary published today.

The European Commission's 2010 Agenda for New Skills and Jobs estimates that by 2020 there will be a shortage of about one million professionals in the health sector − and up to two million if ancillary healthcare professions are taken into account.

Employers' organisations across Europe argue that a successful immigration policy will have to go further than simply facilitating easier admission procedures. "An attractive range of educational opportunities, an open culture and long-term prospects for talented individuals are also of major importance," BusinessEurope stated.


In recent months, EU governments have agreed a series of measures to strengthen the bloc's external borders and prevent illegal migrants from North Africa from reaching European shores and seeking jobs.

The European Commission in July ruled that Italy and France did not breach EU rules by adopting their own measures to deal with an influx of migrants from Tunisia earlier this year, but they did fail to respect the "spirit" of the Schengen agreement.

Britain, where riots recently exposed a widening gap between rich and poor, has capped the number of workers it allows in from outside the EU to 21,700 a year, down from around 28,000 in 2009.

Earlier in August, Spain, where unemployment rates have soared above 20%, was given the green light to restrict the number of Romanian workers seeking employment in the country in order to protect its labour market.


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