We are oftentimes used to hearing about immigration towards the European Union as a problem to be solved, if not as a threat. The public discourse is in fact skewed towards the discussion of irregular immigration and regulations to be formulated and adopted to stop the inflow. Usually, most proposals revolve around ways to prevent the migration from happening, often not even searching for the root of the issue but just looking for ways to block people outside a country’s borders.
However, given the recent demographic trends and labour shortages trends of the European Union, immigration could (and should) also be discussed as an opportunity, both on the part of European citizens and on the part of third-countries citizens who wish to work and live in an EU Member State. For example, the Report on Labour Shortages and Surpluses published in 2021 by the European Labour Authority shows that numerous occupations have recently suffered from shortages; these occupations range from trained technicians, to healthcare professionals (both nurses and doctors) to engineers and software developers. On the other hand, some occupations that instead do not require specific or high-level skills, such as cleaners, shop assistants and non-specialized workmanship, have been subjected to surpluses.
The European Union has been long aware of such trends and has sought the creation of numerous tools to oppose or even reverse them; a crucial point of its strategy is to establish a framework to make demand-driven immigration easier and convenient. One of such tools is the EU Blue Card.
The EU Blue Card: what it is, the rights it grants and who can apply for it.
The EU Blue Card is a work and residence permit for citizens of countries outside the European Union and the European Economic Area, who wish to work and live along with their families in an EU Member State. All Member States can issue Blue Cards, apart from Denmark and Ireland, by their own choice. It is modelled after the US Green Card, providing comprehensive socio-economic rights such as free movement within the Schengen area, working and salaries conditions equal to nationals, a series of socio-economic rights such as unemployment benefits and a clear perspective of permanent residence. It was first adopted as a proposal from the European Commission in October 2007 and as a Directive from the European Council in May 2009. Its special feature is that it grants the right to both work and residence, which usually require two different permits instead.
To apply for a Blue Card it is sufficient to reach the EU Blue Card Network website and forward an application. To be eligible for the programme, workers need to show proof of expertise in their respective field, either through a tertiary or post-secondary education qualification or, after the revision of 2021, five years of professional experience on the job. Once the application has been deemed as suitable, it can be viewed by employers of the targeted Member State, who can offer a job contract that has to respect minimum criteria about duration, wage and welfare benefits. Once an agreement has been reached, the Blue Card is issued within three months; procedures for family reunification can begin right away.
The 2021 revision: issues and changes
However innovative the Blue Card Scheme may be, its establishment and employment has been far from smooth sailing and, if one considers its beneficiaries on the Union level, it definitely cannot be considered a success. Problems started from the get-go, when, in June 2011, the due date of the transposition of the Directive was missed by twenty out of twenty-four Member States.
Then, once it was implemented, only two States took significant advantage from it: Germany and Luxembourg. In fact, from 2013 to 2020 only around 80 thousand Blue Cards have been issued, which amount to just above 1.3% of the 6.2 million work permits issued by Member States through national immigration schemes. This percentage rises to 24.8% in Luxembourg and 16.6% in Germany; in absolute terms though, given the size of Luxembourg’s population and workforce, almost two thirds of all EU Blue Cards, around 50 thousand, have been issued by Germany alone. Italy has issued, in the same time period, only 2131 Blue Cards, corresponding to only 1% of all its work permits. The Blue Card scheme is not in fact the only channel that Member States dispose of to grant permits to high-skilled workers; regardless, data shows that such low percentages are, at least in some States, mainly due to the fact that there are a lot more immigrants employed in non-specialised occupations than in highly qualified ones. Once again, in Italy around 10% of the workforce is made up by immigrants (2.26 million over 22.5 million, as of 2021 according to Istat); however, this percentage rises to 29.2% in non-qualified positions and dramatically drops to 2.2% in highly qualified ones).
Table: EU Blue Cards issued from 2013 to 2020
Data by Istat, processed by Fondazione Leone Moressa
The main reason behind the overall failure of the Blue Card Scheme, as far as 2020, is thought to be the interference between national immigration schemes and regulations with EU Directives. In fact, since numerous Member States already had procedures in place, or laws limiting inflows and different approaches overall, most of them have preferred to stick with what they already knew best and was more convenient in terms of costs.
Due to reports going as far back as 2014 which already showed signs of low efficiency of the Blue Card scheme, the European Commission proposed to revise the Directive in 2016. However, most Member States opposed the proposal, wishing to retain as much autonomy as they could regarding parallel national schemes. Then, finally, in 2020 an agreement was reached to open a revision, which was completed in 2021. Member States now have time until November 2023 to transpose the new Directive (2021/1883) into their national laws. The new Directive is the result of long negotiations between the European Commission and the European Council: despite the stricter proposals of the European Commission, which tried to reduce the gap in attractiveness between national schemes and the Blue Card Scheme, the final product ended up significantly more conservative, with all proposals only being partially accepted. Still, progresses are not negligible:
The minimum duration of the job contract has been reduced from one year to only six months, despite the Blue Card lasting a minimum of one year. The renewal of the card is basically automatic, provided that the conditions of eligibility are still met.
The minimum wage to be offered has been lowered from 1.5 times the national average to 1.0 times and may be cut further for certain categories of workers, such as recent graduates and managers. An upper limit has also been put in place, of 1.6 times the national average, although some Member States have obtained the right to raise it further.
The procedure for family reunification has been made quicker and easier: a request can be sent directly together with the Blue Card application or, if it is sent later, will be processed within three months instead of the previous six.
The concept of highly qualified employment has been revised to include a minimum of five years of professional experience as an alternative to higher education qualifications.
Eligibility for a Blue Card has been extended to workers who are already beneficiaries of international protection, that were previously excluded.
The minimum time to obtain a long-term residence permit has been decided upon five years, which can be spent in different Member States with periods of absence in between. Many States looking forward to issuing a permit still require workers and their families to have lived there for at least the last two years continuously.
The most notable change that has instead been rejected is the ban on new parallel schemes that target the same categories of workers as the Blue Card Scheme. However, a new rule that has been put in place requires that all Blue Card holders are granted the same benefits as workers who hold a national permit, such as shorter times for family reunification, higher wages or shorter procedures to apply for long-term residence.
By far the greatest advantage of the Blue Card compared to national permits is the EU intra-mobility in the Schengen area, both when it comes to shorter trips but also, more notably, the possibility of transferring to a different Member State all together, without losing the time accumulated in order to be able to apply for long-term residence permits and European citizenship.
Drawing conclusions on the EU Blue Card Scheme
Overall, it will be difficult to assess the efficiency of the revised Directory, once it will have been implemented, since there are multiple factors that can affect the attractiveness of the European Union as a migration destination. Above all, Brexit is likely to drive up requests for Blue Cards regardless of changes, since people who have already migrated to the UK or were considering it may decide for the European Union instead. The effects of the policy changes are not expected to be drastic nevertheless, since the revision fundamentally fails to address the core of the low utility of the Scheme to begin with: the conflicts between wider schemes at a Union level and more specific parallel schemes on a national level. Granted, the gap has been reduced, but probably it is not enough to make the Blue Card as convenient as other schemes. Part of the problem is the lack of information of both national immigration officers (which are the ones processing requests and giving advice to potential immigrants) and potential employers; since they are already a lot more familiar with national regulations they prefer to stick with what they know best. Furthermore, the fact that so far the Blue Card Scheme has achieved relevant success only in a few Member States, the lack of information has become part of a vicious cycle, where the Blue Card is not used because people are not informed of it and people do not learn about it because it is not being used.
Despite these not so optimistic expectations, it is still possible that the Blue Card may be more successful and widespread; this situation could lead to two problems which are worth briefly mentioning. The first one is that so far it has been more convenient for Member States to use national schemes, partly because they are less costly: in some cases wages may be lower, or welfare rights may not be guaranteed to the same degree. These conditions are not as favourable for immigrant workers, but they may still prefer to migrate nevertheless. If the gap needs closing between national schemes and the Blue Card Scheme, then national programmes may be revised as well, with the consequence of becoming more expensive and thus not as widely used. The overall result would be a net loss of highly qualified immigrant workers, which is the opposite of what the European Union is trying to achieve.
The second problem has instead a lot to do with ethics. Highly skilled workers are in fact an asset to a country; ultimately, this is the reason why the EU States, as well as any other country, are trying to attract as many of them as possible. If a lot of highly skilled workers start moving to Europe from less developed countries, the migration may lead to further underdevelopment caused by a brain drain. The Blue Card Directive already takes this issue into consideration, by allowing Member States to reject applications of workers from certain countries which already suffer from much more severe specialised labour shortages; however, this rule is neither mandatory nor widely used. As far as today, the Blue Card Scheme is not considered to be causing brain drains, partly because of its relatively low impact on immigration and partly because most Blue Cards holders come from middle-income countries, as opposed to the lowest-income ones. Still, it is a problem that may grow considerably in the future, which European policy makers should take seriously.
In conclusion, the EU Blue Card Scheme is a right (short) step in the right direction. Whether its potential will be fully exploited, and whether it will happen ethically, depends on how much progress European policy makers and most importantly all European Citizens are willing to make towards a progressively more integrated system of law and of life.