Call us

Blue Cards and the 'global battle for talent'

Labour migration / COMMENTARY
Elizabeth Collett

Date: 28/05/2009
With unemployment rising in the EU as the economic downturn bites, it may seem a somewhat strange moment for its 27 Member States to have agreed a scheme to encourage high-skilled workers to enter Europe’s labour market.

But, downturn or not, the statistics suggest that the EU lags behind when it comes to employing high-skilled migrants. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, foreign-born workers with university or equivalent qualifications make up just 2% of the EU labour market, compared with 4.5% in the US, nearly 8% in Australia, and nearly 10% in Canada.

The Blue Card scheme, proposed in late 2007 amid much fanfare, is intended to help the EU win the ‘global battle for talent’. But what does it offer the potential high-flier from outside the EU? The short answer is: not as much as it could.

The system, which will not be implemented until 2011 at the earliest, is complementary: it does not replace Member States’ own schemes for attracting high-skilled workers, or prevent
them from offering more advantageous terms of entry on a national basis. This was a key issue in the negotiations, and reflects the fact that EU Member States are increasingly competing against each other for the most talented workers.

To qualify for a Blue Card, applicants must have a job offer (for at least one year), professional/educational qualifications (a three-year course or five-year professional experience), and meet minimum salary thresholds in the Member State they want to work in. 

Blue Card holders will have some advantages: members of their family will be able to join them within six months and have the right to work; they can accumulate the five years of residence required for Long-Term Resident status in different Member States (a privilege not available to other migrants); and they will be allowed to leave the EU for up to 12 months without losing their Blue Card status, enabling them to return home temporarily without ‘losing’ rights in the EU.

These are all important ‘carrots’ (and arguably ones which should be extended to all migrant workers). But are they enough to divert the flow of talent away from North America and Asia?

One of the central concepts of the original proposal was that Blue Card holders would be offered free access to the labour markets of all EU countries after spending several years in the ‘original’ Member State. This, in itself, was quite a step back from the ‘job seekers’ permit’ suggested by former Justice, Liberty and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini in 2006, but was still a novel idea.

The final iteration is somewhat different. Blue Card holders can move to another Member State after 18 months, but must meet the same conditions again (job offer, qualification, salary, etc.) according to specific criteria set by the second country. Differences between Member States’ labour markets raise a number of questions: what happens if the second country does not recognise the same qualifications as the first, or the minimum salary level set by the
second is substantially different?

It is difficult to see how this provision offers significant ‘freedom of movement’ - and this highlights a much larger challenge for EU immigration policies: without harmonisation in other
policy areas, there is a limit to how far economic migration policies can be harmonised. As long as recognition of qualifications, salary levels, and labour demand continue to vary so greatly between Member States, the rights of mobility offered under the Blue Card scheme will remain insubstantial in real terms. Indeed, the preamble to the text explicitly states that the legislation does not aim to harmonise employment law.

Two specific requirements highlight the difficulties faced by any would-be mobile migrant worker.

Firstly, the applicant’s salary must be at least 1.5 times the average gross annual salary in the Member State concerned - but ‘average gross salary’ is a fairly meaningless term, as it can be calculated in different ways. Whatever system is used, it varies hugely: 2006 Eurostat figures put average wages in Luxembourg at more than €43,000, compared with Bulgaria on just over €2,000. This is no doubt why the requirement to re-apply for the Blue Card in the second Member State has been introduced. Furthermore, while exceptions can be made for sectors “in particular need” of additional skilled workers (such as healthcare or engineering), countries have to notify the Commission as to which sectors are in “need” each year - a notoriously complex task in itself.

Secondly, while the EU has embarked on an extremely difficult and technical process to ensure qualifications are recognised throughout the Union (known as the Bologna Process), no
equivalent mechanism exists for recognising qualifications from most non-EU countries.

The Blue Card system will also leave it to individual EU countries to decide how to recognise formal skills, and they do this in very different ways. Some leave it to employers (who may be more experienced in determining skill levels), while others keep rolling lists of recognised institutions. In the absence of common rules, Blue Card holders may run the risk of having
their skills recognised in one Member State but not in another.

These problems have little to do with immigration policy per se, but they demonstrate that European labour markets are still too different to manage fully-fledged common immigration policies and free movement. The building blocks are too weak to support any ‘heavier’ harmonisation.

Recessions and depressions aside, this is an unsustainable state of affairs. Europe’s competitiveness depends upon the ability of its Member States to collaborate on immigration policies as part of a much broader package of measures to boost skills and innovation in the labour market.

As the global war for talent hots up, immigration policies themselves need to be rethought if the EU is to attract the highly-skilled. The current legislation lacks the flexibility required to address the realities of the modern labour market: the relevance of ‘soft’ rather than formal skills (such as teamwork, bilingualism and cultural adaptability), the need for employees to switch sectors and learn new skills on a regular basis, and the fact that many of the high-skilled start life as researchers or temporary workers (the proposed legislation makes them ineligible for Blue Cards).

Surveys of high-skilled migrant workers in a variety of sectors also suggest that immigration policies per se are not the primary reason for choosing one location over another. Far more
important is the quality of opportunities offered, in terms of salaries, career advancement, or the chance to work with leaders in their field, etc.

EU and national government efforts to foster centres of excellence, both in business and academia, would not just improve the Union's chances of winning the global battle for talent, but could also help expand the pool of home-grown talent. Similarly, reducing structural barriers to mobility for all workers, in line with proposals currently under discussion, would make the EU more attractive.

Initiatives like this may have a greater long-term impact than EU measures that aim to protect national immigration and labour market policies. The Union should, therefore, consider using labour-market policy tools to effect immigration policy change and incorporating non-immigration-related thinking into its next Justice, Liberty and Security five-year plan.

Elizabeth Collett is a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre.

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten