Representatives of the European Commission in Strasbourg unveiled a "Blue Card" fast-track migration program Tuesday as an attempt to allow skilled workers from outside the European Union to overcome immigration hurdles more easily.
"We are not good enough at attracting highly skilled people," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at a press conference called for the plan's release.
Possessing an European Union-wide work permit would allow skilled workers - including medical professionals, engineers, IT specialists and other highly qualified workers -- to get work permits, move among the EU countries and obtain long-term residency status more easily and quickly, according to the proposal. "Highly qualified" was defined as having a university degree and three years of relevant experience.
Holders of an EU Blue Card would be treated just like EU nationals as regards tax benefits, social assistance, payment of pensions, access to public housing and study grants. According to the proposal, the Blue Card would be valid for two years, after which it could be renewed. It would also be revokeable if the holder became unemployed for more than three months. Family members would be permitted to join the card holders.
The card is similar to the Green Card used in the United States. European Commission officials voiced the opinion that the EU's 27 countries lag behind the US and Canada in attracting and retaining highly skilled immigrant workers. "The EU as a whole ... seems not to be considered attractive by highly qualified professionals in a context of very high international competition," the proposal says.
EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini, who has been working on the proposal for years, pointed to statistics showing how the EU was losing out to competitor nations in attracting skilled labor. The statistics showed that the percentage of the EU's highly qualified workforce was made up of 0.9 percent non-EU workers, as opposed to 9.9 percent for Australia, 7.3 percent for Canada and 3.5 percent in the US.
"These figures show very clearly that, for the highly skilled workers, Europe is not very attractive and this is the reason why we have decided to launch this proposal," Frattini said.
Falling birth rates and demographic shifts throughout Europe are some of the chief reasons why Europe is seeking to attract more skilled labor. Estimates hold that the EU's working age population will decrease by 50 million by 2050, causing shortages in critical sectors.
To gain approval, the "blue card" and related legislation would have to be approved by all 27 EU member states. According to the proposal, each member state will set its own quotas for "blue card" grantees, based upon its needs.
The card has met with some resistence, particularly in Germany, where many remain skeptical of a pan-European solution to the problem. In September, the idea drew fire from German Economy Minister Michael Glos, who said: "Germany could not take in large numbers of foreign workers just because it needs them at one particular moment." But business leaders in Germany have complained in recent months that shortages in skilled workers such as engineers and computer specialists could start to have a negative effect on the economy.
To be eligible to receive a "Blue Card" a migrant would have to have a contract for at least one year for a job with a salary at least three times -- or, for candidates under 30, two times -- the minimum wage in that country and health insurance. To offer the job to an immigrant, employers will be obliged to show that the job could not be filled by an EU citizen.
Next year, the commission is planning to propose employment guidelines for seasonal workers involved in the agriculture, construction and tourism industries. Thereafter, it hopes to also address the issue of non-EU employees of multinational companies who are often required to obtain multiple work and residence permits when working and living within the 27-member bloc.
The EU had been considering this issue since 1999, but shelved it for several years following 9/11. If EU member states agree to the law, each country will have two years to implement it.