February 27, 2009
In the developed world, immigration policies have had mixed success. Migrations have been accepted and even encouraged as an economic and demographic necessity, but the failure of developed societies to integrate migrants has also led to social tensions and to a public backlash that populist politicians have successfully exploited in many countries. Whereas business tends to lobby for labour markets to be more open to foreign workers, trade unions have a different perspective – they fear an influx of foreign workers will lead to lower wages and reduced social standards.
Today, the standard policy in EU countries is to put in place policies which actively try to attract highly-skilled migrants from outside the Union, whilst keeping the flow of non-skilled migrants under control. This has been criticised by developing countries, who have complained that rich countries pillage their best minds, and best hopes for economic development. Specifically, developing countries argue that Europe, along with other developed economies, is stealing their youth. According to the latest figures from the EU’s statistical office, Eurostat, more than half of economic migrants coming to the EU are between 20-34 years old.
The two sides have pledged to work together around ideas of “co-development” (i.e. coupling stricter immigration rules in developed countries with projects to create jobs in countries of origin), and circular migration (in which workers develop skills and earn money during a stint in Europe, before returning to take up jobs in their home countries). Co-development, however, has so far fallen short of developing countries’ expectations, while circular migration is still in its infancy.
Main issues at the European Level
Migration policy has been high on the EU agenda for the past decade. Europe is facing a demographic time-bomb from its rapidly ageing population. At the same time, failure to integrate existing migrant workers has led to social tensions. Governments are left trying to square the circle of satisfying long-term economic needs, and addressing voters concerns over uncontrolled immigration – a conundrum made only more difficult by the economic downturn.
In December 2004, EU governments agreed (as part of a multi-annual work programme on justice and home affairs) to establish a common immigration policy. The programme included 3 points directly focused on migration: defining ‘a balanced approach to migration’, improving the management of migration flows, and maximising the positive impact of immigration (i.e. improving integration of migrants). Progress since has been limited. A Commission proposal in 2001 to harmonise the conditions of entry and residence for migrants across the EU was opposed by a large number of member states and was withdrawn in 2006. The Commission subsequently identified bits of the draft that it thought could be accepted by EU member states and is hoping to have them adopted as separate proposals.
The main proposal so far adopted to encourage economic migration to the EU is the so-called Blue Card scheme. It was agreed at ministerial level in 2008 (and will begin operating in 2011). Officials admit, however, that the blue card lacks substance, and that its true success may be as a first step towards a more ambitious initiative in the future. A blue card holder will not automatically gain the right to work in different member states, as national governments will retain tight control over access to their labour markets. The main elements of the scheme, in its current form, are that blue card holders will have special dispensation to bring family members to live with them in the EU, and will have better and faster access to social benefits. Although the Blue Card project initially sparked outcry in developing countries, who claimed the scheme would worsen brain drain, these criticisms quickly faded once the limited ambition of the initiative became clear.
What the blue card debate showed is that many member states still have reservations about the EU pursuing an unabashed policy to attract foreign workers. Two of the most reluctant countries towards the scheme were Germany (which is one of four member states to maintain transitional labour market access restrictions against workers from countries which joined the EU in 2004), and the Czech Republic – which was concerned that the scheme would lead to people from outside the EU having better access to the internal market than its own nationals. Also notable is that the European Pact on Asylum and Immigration, agreed by EU leaders at a summit in October, has little to say how to encourage economic migration – it is focused instead on strengthening cooperation on expelling illegal immigrants, and toughening up border control.
Despite the Blue Card’s lack of ambition, further EU action is inevitable, not least because of Europe’s perilous demographic situation. A study by the International Monetary Fund in 2006 predicted that by 2050 the working age population (15-64-year-olds) in the EU will fall by 16% while the elderly population (over-65s) will increase by 77%. Proposals from the Commission to make it easier for intra-corporate transferees to come to Europe are already in the pipeline. Existing EU initiatives to tackle brain drain, such as a voluntary code of conduct for ethical recruitment in hospitals agreed in April 2008, will be tested by Europe’s demographic needs.
Last but not least, skilled labour flowing out of Europe, mainly to the United States, Canada and Australia, is also a cause for concern. Europe is afflicted by ‘brain drain’ in the high-skilled graduates and researchers it loses (statistics published by the Commission in 2007 show that Indian researches are better paid than their EU counterparts). Initiatives pursued by the EU on this front have largely centred on trying to temp skilled minds to stay in Europe using the carrot of the single market (one batch of measures in 2008 was labelled the “researchers’ passport”) and providing EU funding opportunities.
Challenges in the Short and long run
In the global competition for talent, Europe is losing out to North America and Australia. Statistics are not encouraging. The blue card, as adopted, fails to offer highly-skilled migrants unrestricted access to the European labour market. If Europe is to compete, it will have to improve its offer, by coming up with national or EU level schemes that will make a difference. Beyond anything else, the demographic time-bomb facing Europe will compel countries to become less selective about who they let in.
Concurrent with this, however, is the EU’s moral obligation to prevent brain drain in developing countries, or at least to minimise and mitigate it. It is also in Europe’s long term interest to make sure that developing countries do not suffer from brain drain, which destabilises fragile societies. Experiments in circular migration should be closely monitored and expanded if successful.
– Is brain drain in developing countries an inevitable outcome of EU policies?
– What can and should be done to mitigate brain-drain?
– Will the Blue Card scheme work? Should it be considered a first step to something more ambitious?
– What rewards can and should the EU offer to improve its attractiveness to highly-skilled workers?
– Is the EU paying too much attention to attracting skill workers from abroad, while not doing enough to retain and use those it already has?
European Commission Migration Policy portal:
International Migration Outlook 2008, OECD:
IOM report – “World Migration 2008: Managing Labour Mobility in the Evolving Global Economy”
Elizabeth Collett, The Proposed European Blue Card System: Arming for the Global War for Talent?, European Policy Centre, January 2008