Blue card Carrot and Stick for Immigrants

The European Commission plans to control immigration by attracting more qualified professionals and sending back refugees to transit countries in Africa and the Middle East.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has reformed the Blue Card scheme, dropping hurdles for immigrants who are well-qualified.

The European Commission, the E.U.'s executive body, on Tuesday proposed curbing illegal immigration while offering to make it easier for qualified migrants to get work permits in the 28-nation bloc.

The E.U.’s executive presented a plan to reform its Blue Card scheme - similar to the U.S. Green Card - which hasn’t been widely used since it was launched in 2009.

It also plans to reach agreements with non-E.U. countries used as transit routes for refugees, such as Niger, Libya and Lebanon, to take back illegal immigrants and combat traffickers.

The two measures are aimed at limiting and controlling immigration after well over 1 million refugees and migrants reached Europe over the past year, mostly illegally and via dangerous routes across the Mediterranean.

The E.U. will be short of around one million skilled staff in the health sector and some 750,000 in the IT industry in 2020.

The Blue Card hasn’t become widely established apart from some moderate success in Germany which has so far issued it to more than 42,000 people, mostly from India, China and Russia, according to figures from the German interior ministry.

Other E.U. members states haven’t made much use of it, with France only issuing some 1,000 cards over the last three years and Italy 258. Britain doesn’t take part in the system. Nor do Ireland and Denmark.

Both the E.U. Commission and experts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have warned that many countries risk suffering a serious shortage of skilled labor unless they attract qualified immigrants.

The E.U. will be short of around 1 million skilled staff in the health sector and some 750,000 in the IT industry in 2020, analysts estimate.

In a recent report, the OECD said the E.U. attracts the most students globally but has yet to make a name for itself as a destination for skilled migrant labor.

That’s why Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos wants to make the Blue Card more attractive. Applicants will still have to present a labor contract in the E.U. to get the card, but the salary threshold is to be reduced significantly. At present, they are only issued to professionals earning 50 percent more than the E.U. member state’s average wage.

The E.U. will also make it easier for skilled migrants to bring their families over, and the period after which they can apply for a permanent work permit is to be shortened to three years from five.

German politicians welcomed the plans. “The E.U. Commission has recognized that Europe must do more for immigration,” Christian Lindner, the head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, told Handelsblatt.

But Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is unlikely to be happy about another planned change, to issue the Blue Card to well-qualified asylum seekers, as this could attract more refugees.

Other member states may also resist the Commissioner’s plan to have the Blue Card replace all national work permits for highly-qualified people.

The planned new “migration partnerships” with countries to help reduce refugee numbers could also prove controversial.

Transit counties in Africa and the Middle East are to get financial and logistical help to take back refugees and combat traffickers.

The blueprint for such deals is to be the agreement the E.U. reached with Turkey in March, which has been fiercely criticized for rendering the E.U. beholden to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, under fire for becoming increasingly authoritarian and intolerant towards domestic opposition.

But E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the huge levels of migration could only be managed “in strong partnerships with key states.”

The E.U. plans to make up to €8 billion, or $9.1 billion, available by 2020 to persuade them to cooperate. Most of that money is to come from existing funds.

In addition, a €3.1 billion fund is to be used to initiate private investments totaling more than €31 billion in the countries.


Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]