EU proposes changes to work permit policies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new report points out that Europe retains a smaller percentage of foreign graduates than is the case in non-EU OECD states
  • In a related finding, the report also notes that the EU attracts a smaller percentage of highly qualified immigrants compared to other non-EU OECD members
  • A new Action Plan introduced in June 2016 outlines a variety of reforms designed to ease the transition from study to work for foreign graduates in the EU

A recent OECD report recommends the European Union reform its legal labour migration policies to make it easier for foreign graduates to obtain work permits. Recruiting Immigrant Workers: Europe suggests that long term competitiveness hangs in the balance, noting that, while the EU now hosts more international students than the US, a smaller percentage of those students stay in Europe after graduation when compared to non-EU OECD countries.

“It should be easier for people graduating in the EU to obtain a work permit in the EU,” says the report.

The shape of migration to the EU

While several large Asian markets – among them India, China and the Philippines – drive overall migration to OECD countries, migration to the EU is more diverse, with potential migrants in nearby European and African regions more likely to cite the EU as their desired destination compared to other regions. However, the EU attracts smaller numbers of higher-educated migrants than other OECD destinations.

The EU hosts about 31% of the global pool of higher-eduated migrants distributed across EU and OECD countries, whereas nearly six in ten (57%) are in North America. In fact, the overall pattern is that migrants to the EU tend to be younger and less educated than is the case in non-EU OECD countries. Between 2000 and 2010, the share of all low-educated migrants in OECD countries living in the EU15 rose from 36% to 45%, and in 2014 employment among migrants in the EU15 countries was more than ten percentage points lower than in non-EU OECD countries.

The OECD’s recommendation that the EU reform its work permit policies to retain highly-educated foreign EU graduates therefore represents a plan to reverse this long-term trend. Current migration rules were developed at a time when member-states were in more direct competition. The report’s authors suggest that modern-day factors require a less fragmented approach designed to make the EU more attractive as a whole.

The report notes that variances in policy make for uneven issuance of work permits. As it stands now, Italy, Spain, and the UK issue more than half of all work permits bestowed. Some EU states impose education, occupation, or salary requirements, while others rely upon hard numerical limits. Still others use labour market tests, and some deny entry to less skilled labour migrants entirely while others admit them only for seasonal activities.

This is not to say work permit polices are completely disconnected. The EU developed some common rules with the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty, while the 2009 Lisbon Treaty mandates that certain objectives should be supported and complemented through EU initiatives, and made the European Parliament co-legislator in the area of legal migration. The chart below, from the OECD, gives an idea of the overall alignment of policies in various countries.

barriers-to-labour-migration-in-selected-eu-countries
Barriers to labour migration in selected EU countries. Source: OECD

The Netherlands, for its part, is out front on the issue of attracting highly skilled migrants. The understanding that the retention of international students bolsters the Dutch economy led to the creation of the Make it in the Netherlands (MiitN) programme in 2014. Among other areas of focus, MiitN began to promote the learning of Dutch to foreign students, worked toward creating a bridge between study and career, and streamlined bureaucratic procedures.

EU President Jean-Claude Juncker has called for a reset on foreign worker rules as part of a broader agenda of boosting employment rights and setting wage standards, among other goals. Already an EU vote earlier this year harmonised and eased rules for non-EU students, with the goal of attracting not only more students, but also researchers and interns.

The further changes proposed are touted as a way to bring clarity to various grey areas in regulations, and they fall into three broad categories: adapting labour migration channels, simplifying procedures, and promoting the EU labour market.

Proposed Blue Card changes

The EU’s Blue Card programme was designed to attract skilled workers from abroad. However, the programme was not adopted by all member states and has not been widely used.

With an EU Action Plan announced on 7 June 2016, the programme is now set for a major restructuring. Less than 14,000 Blue Cards were issued last year, and mostly by Germany. In September 2015, more than three quarters of respondents to a public survey concerning the Blue Card scheme believed more should be done at the EU level to improve the attractiveness of EU member states for highly skilled migrants. The ease of getting a permit was the issue singled out by 63% of respondents. Currently, in order to receive a Blue Card non-EU nationals must earn 1.5 times the average salary of the EU country where they plan to move, and employment contracts must be for at least one year.

Some of the European Commission’s proposed reforms include:

  • Faster and more flexible procedures. Applications can be submitted either abroad or in EU territory, and the maximum processing time is brought down from 90 to 60 days.
  • Parallel national schemes for similar eligible groups are to be replaced by a single, EU-wide scheme for highly skilled third-country nationals.
  • The required minimum duration of initial contracts is brought down from 12 to 6 months to align more with labour market realities and many national schemes.
  • The new scheme introduces more facilitation for recent graduates and workers in shortage occupations to increase the retention of foreign talent educated in the EU and facilitate their entry from abroad.
  • Member states have the option to introduce fast-track procedures for recognised or trusted employers, with the recognition procedure regulated at the national level.
  • Blue Card holders will be able to move to other member states after 12 months of residence in the first member state, compared to 18 months under the existing rules. They would be able to move after six months of residence in second, third, and further member states.
  • Professional experience will be recognised as equivalent to possessing higher education credentials.

Certain rules would not change, for example the requirement for Blue Card applicants to prove their highly-skilled status, or to have a job offer or contract in hand before submitting paperwork. Member-states will also still be able to rely upon labour market tests to judge employer needs and create national shortage lists, which would be used to adjust salary thresholds and thus attract the workers each country’s labour markets need most urgently.

According to OECD Director for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs Stefano Scarpetta, employers in most EU member states already report more difficulty attracting and retaining talent than those in competing non-EU countries. Commenting on the need to draw more highly skilled workers, he said, “Skilled migrants can play an important role in addressing labour market shortages, drive innovation, and promote productivity growth.”

Political obstacles loom

Jean-Claude Juncker is now under pressure to resign his EU presidency due to the outcome of Britain’s Brexit vote. It is unclear what effect this would have, if any, on the EU’s recent proposals. Likely none, as support is strong among policymakers for common action in making the EU more attractive for highly qualified migrants. But any reforms will take place in an atmosphere of growing anti-immigrant sentiment among EU citizens.

Strong resistance to EU policy in countries like Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Slovakia are already roiling the political waters. Switzerland staged a referendum on immigration caps in 2014 that passed and is legally binding upon Swiss policymakers, and Romania has its own immigration vote upcoming in the autumn. Various European politicians have criticised the EU’s proposals in the most forceful terms. Gisela Stuart of the UK’s Labour Party told The Guardian, “The plan appears to be to open our borders ever wider – extending access to the European labour market to yet more war zones.”

The authors of Recruiting Immigrant Workers: Europe acknowledge that the issue of legal migration is tied to that of forced and illegal migration. For example, one proposed Blue Card reform expands the programme to encompass people who previously arrived in Europe illegally and are seeking asylum. But the report also points out that legal migration, such as by foreign students seeking university degrees, constitutes the bulk of movement to the EU.

The EU estimates Blue Card reforms will net the single market €1.4 billion to €6.2 billion each year (US$1.6–US$7 billion), derived from retaining or attracting 32,000 to 137,000 additional high-skilled workers. Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship, said, “If we want to manage migration in the long-term, we have to start making those investments now, in the interest of us all. 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.”



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