An EU ‘Blue Card’ for high-skilled immigrants?


The EU is eager to attract high-skilled immigrants in order to fill its looming demographic crisis and related skills shortage. But experts warn that the right conditions must first be set. 

The Hague Programme, endorsed by the European Council in November 2004, envisaged the creation of common immigration and asylum policy guidelines for the (then) 25 EU member states. The Programme also stressed the importance of having an open debate on economic immigration at EU level. 

Economic migration, if correctly managed, could help the European Union face its demographic challenges and reach the objectives set in the EU’s Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs. 

The European Union is indeed rapidly aging: there will be one retired person for every two workers as early as 2050. And while employment rates rise, it is becoming more difficult to match Europe’s growing demand for labour, especially for high-skilled and seasonal workforce. 

The challenges and opportunities of economic migration have prompted the European Commission to adopt a Green Paper on an EU approach to managing economic migration, in January 2005. The Green Paper sought to launch a discussion on: 1) the most appropriate Community rules for admitting economic migrants, and; 2) the added value which could be brought by EU action in this policy field. 

In December 2005, the Commission issued a Policy Plan on Legal Migration which defined a road-map for the Hague Programme. The Policy Plan listed a series of measures to be adopted until 2009, including a horizontal directive introducing a single permit and a single procedure for migrants seeking to work in the EU. It also included four sectoral initiatives: 

  1. A proposal for a directive on the conditions of entry and residence of highly skilled workers; 
  2. A proposal for a directive on the conditions of entry and residence of seasonal workers; 
  3. A proposal for a directive on the conditions of entry and residence of remunerated trainees. 
  4. A proposal for a directive on the procedures regulating entry and residence of Intra-Corporate Transferees (ICT); 

The first proposal was presented by the European Commission in autumn 2007, during a High Level Conference on Legal Immigration organised by the Portuguese Presidency. The second and third will be submitted in the autumn of 2008, and the fourth in the course of 2009. 

The Blue Card proposal: attracting highly-skilled labour 

As the demographic gap widens and students shy away from scientific and technical studies, it is becoming more and more difficult to match Europe’s growing demand for high-skilled labour. The supply of technological specialists is constantly receding, and the European Union has not proved as successful as the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand in its effort to attract a share of the large numbers of technicians and engineers trained in emerging economies like China and India. 

Figures presented by former Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Frattini show that while 85% of unskilled labour migration goes to the EU and 5% to the US, only 5% of skilled labour lands in the EU – whereas the US alone absorb the lion’s share of engineers, technicians and ICT specialists, 55% of the total highly-skilled mobile workforce. 

Lagging behind in the race for the best brains, Europe could find itself unable to assert its position as a global leader in innovation. 

The Portuguese Presidency was the first to tackle these issues, with a High Level Conference on Legal Immigration  organised on 13-14 September 2007 in Lisbon. On this occasion, the Commission presented its proposal for the so-called Blue Card, part of its strategy for legal migration. 

The Blue Card is the EU’s main policy initiative in the global competition for the best, highly mobile brains. The aim is to create a single application procedure for non-EU workers to reside and work within the EU. The proposal aims to attract up to 20 million highly skilled workers from outside the EU. 

The following table compares the proposed Blue Card with its main competitor, the US Green Card: 


Blue Card (EU) Green Card (US)
Does not give permanent residency. Gives holder permanent residency.
Valid up to two years, renewable. Valid for 10 years, renewable.
Allows holders and families to live, work and travel in the EU. Allows holder to live, work and travel in the US.

Applicant must present: 

  • A recognised diploma, and;
  • proof of at least three years of professional experience, and;
  • a one-year EU job contract with a salary of three times the minimum wage. 
    Nevertheless, the Blue Card will be attached to the individual, not the job. 

Five channels to seek a card: 

  • Employment, or; 
  • family links, or;
  • a lottery, or; 
  • investment, or; 
  • resident since before 1972.
Permanent residency automatic after five years. Holders can become US citizens after five years.

The Blue Card proposal has generated a lively debate. Two issues have proved to be the most divisive: the definition of 'highly-skilled worker' and the destiny of already existing national schemes aimed at attracting qualified foreign labour. 

It has indeed been questioned whether the level of income that a third-country national will receive in the EU is a sufficiently valid criterion for deciding on the person's value and benefits to the host society, as originally foreseen. The Commission’s proposal said that the gross salary for a Blue Card holder must be at least three times the minimum wage in the member state concerned. There were however no clear requirement for countries where a minimum wage does not exist. After negotiations between member states at the EU Council of Ministers, the requirement was set at 1.5 times the average wage. But some member states are still unsatisfied, with some, including the Netherlands, arguing this should be lowered down to 1.3 and others, such as Germany, saying it should be raised, at least up to 1.7. 

The Commission’s Blue Card proposal originally aimed at harmonising different member state procedures and at providing highly-skilled migrants with a scheme that would grant them free movement within the EU. Some are however now arguing that national schemes, such as the recently adopted Czech Green Card, should be maintained alongside. 

Under the Blue Card proposal, EU countries will have room to define quotas for the (non-EU) high-skilled workers they allow onto their territory. Germany and Austria are among the member states which are expected to apply restrictive quotas. 

Several objections have been raised to this proposal and to the way it has been framed. Third countries, especially African countries but also the EU's Eastern neighbours, have expressed concern that it will aggravate the 'brain drain' problem. The young intellectual and scientific elites in these countries leave for Western Europe and North America, pursuing higher salaries, better working conditions and job security, rather than looking for a job at home or setting up a business that will strengthen the local economy, they argue. In many African countries, this phenomenon concerns not only scientists but also well-qualified health sector staff. 

Development NGOs and UN organisations have suggested that Europe might give back at least part of its benefits from high-skilled migration to countries of origin in the South, particularly through mechanisms such as circular migration: specialists could spend a limited period of time in Europe to develop and diversify their skills, which could then be brought to use in their countries of origin. This system, it is argued, could benefit all parties involved. 

On the other hand, some countries and most importantly the US have become so attractive for young scientists that Europe itself is experiencing a steady loss of young graduates moving to America. In 2007, 270,000 high-skilled Europeans emigrated to the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and a November 2003 survey by the European Commission found that only 13% of European science professionals working abroad intended to return home. And many doubt that the Blue Card proposal could reverse that trend. 

With respect to the brain drain into as well as out of the EU, it has repeatedly been stressed that every migration decision is a personal one and can therefore only to a certain extent be influenced by regulation. Laws can only partly solve the challenge of making Europe a more attractive place for highly-qualified specialists and of promoting it as such, and it is feared that the conditions offered under the Blue Card might not be sufficiently attractive anyway. 

Highly qualified specialists may also find the conditions offered too restrictive: the two year initial validity of the Blue Card is for instance perceived as too low, insufficient for successful integration and might even put off valuable senior candidates in search of mid to long-term opportunities.

A single application procedure and a single permit 

At the same time as the Blue Card proposal, the Commission published a separate proposal  on "a single application procedure for a single permit for third-country nationals to reside and work in the territory of a member state and on a common set of rights for third-country workers legally residing in a member state". 

This proposal aims at: 

  • securing the legal status of admitted migrant workers; 
  • guaranteeing admitted migrants not yet entitled to long-term residence a common set of rights; 
  • introducing a single application procedure and a single residence/work permit. 

The proposal affects the working and living conditions of third-country workers and might have the same effect on the immigration of workers with excellent qualifications as the Blue Card proposal. 

The Blue Card proposal is not expected to go down easily with some member states; most prominently Germany and Austria. Franz Müntefering, then German employment minister, attacked the proposal quite fiercely, insisting that employment ministers must be involved: "This is no matter to be casually decided by home affairs ministers - and also not by the commissioner in charge of home affairs. This is not a matter for the Commission at all. It must be the responsibility of national parliaments and governments."

When he presented the Blue Card proposal on 23 October 2007 in Strasbourg, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: "Labour migration into Europe boosts our competitiveness and therefore our economic growth. It also helps tackle demographic problems resulting from our ageing population. This is particularly the case for highly skilled labour." Barroso added: "With the EU Blue Card we send a clear signal: Highly skilled people from all over the world are welcome in the European Union." 

He stressed, however: "Let me be clear: I am not announcing today that we are opening the doors to 20 million high-skilled workers. The Blue Card is not a 'blank cheque'. It is not a right to admission, but a demand-driven approach and a common European procedure." Barroso went on to stress that "member states will have broad flexibility to determine their labour market needs and decide on the number of high-skilled workers they would like to welcome". 

Addressing possible adverse effects of high-skilled workers' country of origin, the Commission president said: "With regard to developing countries we are very much aware of the need to avoid negative "brain drain" effects. Therefore, the proposal promotes ethical recruitment standards to limit – if not ban – active recruitment by member states in developing countries in some sensitive sectors. It also contains measures to facilitate so-called "circular migration". Europe stands ready to cooperate with developing countries in this area."

Former Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said on the same occasion: "Europe's ability to attract highly skilled migrants is a measure of its international strength. We want Europe to become at least as attractive as favourite migration destinations such as Australia, Canada and the USA. We have to make highly skilled workers change their perception of Europe's labour market governed as they are by inconsistent admission procedures. Failing this, Europe will continue to receive low-skilled and medium-skilled migrants only. A new vision and new tools are indispensable for reversing this trend. We will also minimise the risk of brain drain from developing countries."

MEP Jean-Marie Cavada  (ALDE, France), the chairman of Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, said: "At a time when the EU is experiencing an ageing of its active population and a penury of skilled labour in certain key sectors [...] we shall examine carefully the provisions of these two directives, and notably the safeguards they provide to limit the brain drain from developing countries, for socio-economic rights and for the right of family members to join these skilled workers." 

German MEP Manfred Weber, the rapporteur on the draft directive for the return of illegal immigrants, said on behalf of the centre-right EPP-ED  Group: "Europe is not attractive enough for highly-qualified workers. The European Union needs these mostly young people - they contribute to innovation and thus help create jobs. However, the question is what criteria will be applied to select these highly-qualified immigrants. The proposed threshold of three times the minimum wage is too low." 

Weber added: "The new rules must not put additional pressure on the millions of unemployed in the EU member states. In addition, only member states must have the competence to decide on the size of immigration flows."  

Italian Socialist MEP Claudio Fava, who will be rapporteur on the directive on sanctions for employers of illegal immigrants, said: "The Socialist Group positively welcomes the European Commission proposal on the Blue Card for highly-skilled workers, but at the same time, it believes that the final text should be braver. In addition to the legal channels of immigration, there should be true and effective free movement of workers on all of the European territory. Limiting this mobility would signify a myopic approach, influenced by national interests and against the idea of an open, economically and competitively advanced Europe. It is also necessary to urgently open the channels of legal migration for non-skilled workers - an indispensable measure in the fight against the increase of work on the black market and the exploitation which immigrants suffer due to the lack of European norms." 

UK MEP Jean Lambert, spokesperson for the Greens/EFA Group on immigration, said: "The proposed Blue Card [...] is supposed to make the EU more attractive as a destination in the global 'talent war' but the Commission risks undermining its own goal. It is a serious source of regret that the Commission is proposing restrictions on mobility within the EU to accompany the card. Mobility is one of the fundamental freedoms in the EU and restrictions for one group of EU residents smacks of double standards. The linking of the 'Blue Card' initiative with the presentation of a general directive on minimum rights for migrant workers is certainly welcome and reflects the need for a comprehensive approach to migration policy. The debate on migration at EU-level has been far too preoccupied with irrational crackdowns on illegal immigration but the reality is that the possibility of legal immigration is crucial to a coherent approach to the issue."  

UK MEP Philip Bradbourn, Conservative spokesman on justice and home affairs, described the Blue Card proposal "is the wrong answer to the wrong question". "What we should be addressing is the wave of illegal migration into the EU before we tackle skills shortages," he said. 

Bradbourn added: "The proposal as it stands will open a Pandora's box to those who seek to migrate to the EU without any of the controls necessary to ensure that those who employ illegal migrants are tackled and those illegal migrants who are caught are sent back to their country of origin. The proposal will encourage more people to undertake hazardous journeys from all corners of the world in the hope that they will get a work permit which once issued will give them free range to move across the whole of Europe." 

John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), said: "Immigration cannot be an easy solution for dealing with labour market shortages and demographic change. The social partners must be involved in assessing real labour market needs and investment in training of unemployed workers – including those from a migrant or minority ethnic background – is a first priority. We will also have to make jobs in sectors where there are shortages more attractive to the locally unemployed in terms of wages and working conditions."

Hans-Werner Müller, secretary-general of SME organisation UEAPME, said: "The European Commission rightly decided to tackle the issue of legal migration by focusing on certain categories of employees. A sector-by-sector approach, which UEAPME favours and requested several times, is crucial to ensure that Europe can benefit more from legal migration in the coming years." 

However, Müller stressed the need to tackle the high unemployment rates in most EU countries at the same time and with the same energy: "Improving the integration in the labour market of the unemployed, which are an untapped source of talent, should remain high on the list of priorities."

Sergio Carrera of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) stressed "the major differences between Member States as regards minimum salaries" in the face of which harmonisation would be "particularly difficult". He also doubted whether the Blue Card could guarantee equal treatment across all Member States, since each state would be able to introduce measures that were more favourable than those in the directive. "The proposed directive could lead to the application of different rights and its sectoral approach could give rise to discrimination", he believed. 

Sverker Rudeberg of Business Europe argued that "this proposal must not prevent Member States from having more favourable rules" and that they must remain free "to determine the number of admissions" in the light of their needs. "A swift and transparent procedure that allows family unification" is imperative if the attractiveness of the European labour markets is to be secured. Mr Rudeberg opposed setting a minimum wage level "that was far too high and would exclude some people from jobs without any reason". 

ETUC's Catelene Passchier said the confederation "would have preferred a horizontal directive" rather than a sectoral approach. She thought it was "difficult to explain that we are resorting to immigration when some countries have problems of unemployment. […] People are concerned that high-level positions will be occupied by migrant workers who are paid less than Community citizens. Equal treatment is very important, to prevent unfair competition", she concluded. 

"I am very glad that [...] we have been able to put in place two important pieces of our common immigration policy," said European Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot, responsible for justice, freedom and security, adding that "highly-skilled migration into Europe increases our competitiveness and economic growth, and helps to tackle the demographic problems resulting from our ageing population". "With [the] adoption of the EU Blue Card, we send a clear signal that, irrespective of economic ups and downs, such migrants are always welcome in the EU."

"At the same time we need to do more against illegal immigration from third-countries and tackle the ease of finding illegal work in EU member states, which is a main driving force for illegal immigration," he said. "The employment of illegally-staying migrants is not a trivial matter. Such migrants run a high risk of ending up in the harsh reality of exploitation and even sometimes slavery-like conditions. Illegal employment also distorts competition and the functioning of the internal market." 

  • Jan. 2005: Commission Green Paper on an EU approach to managing economic migration. 
  • Dec. 2005: Commission Policy Plan on Legal Migration. 
  • Sept. 2007: High Level Conference on Legal Migration in Lisbon. 
  • Oct. 2007: Commission presents Blue Card initiative for highly-skilled migrants. 
  • Oct. 2007: Commission proposal on a single application procedure for a single permit for third-country nationals to reside and work in the EU. 
  • 5-6 June 2008: EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers debate Blue Card proposal at Luxembourg meeting. 
  • Early Nov. 2008: Blue Card proposal voted in Parliament's LIBE Committee. 
  • 21 Nov. 2008: Debate and vote on the Blue Card proposal in the European Parliament (consultation report drafted by Ewa Klamt (EPP-ED, DE) adopted in plenary with 388 votes in favour, 56 against and 124 abstentions). 
  • Autumn 2008: Commission presented proposals on the conditions of entry and residence of seasonal workers and of remunerated trainees.
  • 2009: Commission presented a proposal on the conditions of entry and residence of employees transferred within multinational companies.
  • 25 May 2009: Member states adopted directive aimed at facilitating conditions of entry and residence in the EU of third-country citizens for the purposes of highly-qualified employment. 

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