Labour migration discussed in the European Parliament

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A hearing about the revised EU Blue Card Directive was held on November 7 at the European Parliament. The Directive aims at making the EU more attractive for highly qualified third-country nationals, that is, those from countries beyond the EU/EES area. Hearing participants included representatives from the OECD, the EU Commission, the European Parliament and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. The hearing was valuable because critical assessments of the proposed Directive was discussed, and the participants’ conclusion was that the revised EU Blue Card Directive has a bright future if it allows parallel national systems for labour migration.

Too few issued Blue Cards leads to a revised Directive

The current Directive has been used less than expected when enacted, leading the EU Commission to propose a revision designed to attract more highly qualified and talented workers. In collaboration with the OECD, the EU Commission has prepared a report to serve as a basis for the proposed revised EU Blue Card Directive. The report recommended that EU measures could create added value to benefit both companies and employees. OECD representatives Jean-Christoph Dumont and Jonathan Chaloff, noted that the Blue Card scheme did not intervene in criteria under EU Member States’ national systems for immigration, but offered additional distinct advantages, as with flexibility in using the scheme and a lower salary threshold to better compete with the national systems.

They also argued the benefits of harmonising the various existing national labour migration systems, and taking a step toward a single EU-level system, due to the implications of having parallel competing national schemes. The EU offers a larger labour market, and it is of importance to try to make the system more advantageous for entrepreneurs to attract high-qualified labour.

Members of the European Parliament with diverging views

The audience expressed diverging views of the revised EU Blue Card Directive and its impact on national competency. Some were sceptical that any decision on a ‘desirable level’ of immigration should be taken at the EU level. Many noted the lack of discussion on how the Blue Card scheme would interface with the national systems within the framework of the Directive, expressing concerns it could lead to more bureaucracy and undesirable harmonization at the EU level. Other MEPs emphasized general support for abandoning the national systems if the Blue Card scheme was sufficiently ambitious and flexible. EU Member States supporting the EU Blue Card scheme rather than national systems seemed, however, to be in the minority. Swedish MEP, Cecilia Wikström (L), described meeting the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka who stated the EU had become less attractive whereby many people now sought work in the US, Canada, Australia and China instead. The EU would have to become more attractive to third-country nationals to remain competitive.

The Swedish Labour Migration System

The revised Blue Card includes several improvements, especially relating to greater mobility within the EU, but also raises certain highly problematic aspects. Karin Ekenger presented how Sweden has succeeded in attracting highly educated, among other skilled employees, in recent years, though not through the EU Blue Card scheme. Only eight Blue Cards have been issued in Sweden since 2009, which are fewer compared to other EU Member States. She believed this was most likely due to the well-functioning national system already established in Sweden, which the government, businesses and labour market partners jointly endorsed.

The Swedish model is both flexible and ambitious, covering all types of labour, as opposed to the EU Commission proposal, which addresses only those with higher education. The EU has a shortage of labour within several professions, and Ms. Ekenger identified problems related the Blue Card scheme being limited to only highly qualified labour – as this fails to benefit the business sector. In her view, Sweden’s limited interest in the Blue Card scheme also reflected the high salary threshold of the Directive – as most labour migrants are close to 30 years and hence starting their carriers. The wage setting in Sweden may also characterized as being less attractive to highly qualified labour, compared to the US, Australia or Canada. The salary threshold is an immediate problem to address in order to stimulate interest in an EU-wide Blue Card scheme, Member States should have freedom to choose in applying that threshold, according to Ms. Ekenger.

The Swedish model is designed to address employers’ needs. The Swedish labour migration system is based on wage and employment conditions being determined through collective bargaining agreements or accepted industry practice for the job involved, and requires the job to lead to self-sufficiency. No government authority intervenes to determine the desirable type of labour or educational level. There are also no limits to length of employment, or restrictions relating to work permit renewal – as this is based on the employment contract concluded between the labour market partners. This model therefore enables quick, easy, and legally correct, labour supply – not least for asylum seekers. Many new arrivals have gone from being asylum seekers to becoming labour migrants, to everyone’s benefit. How can we keep this sought-after labour migration if the Directive fails to include all job categories?

Four questions to Ms. Ekenger after the hearing

What is your take-away from this hearing in the European Parliament?

Most important for Sweden is to highlight the need or capability to maintain parallel national systems.

What do you want to see from the revised Blue Card scheme? Can the EU Blue Card be made more attractive?

Yes, the changes as announced show that much has already been done, but the critical issues leading qualified third-country nationals to choose Sweden are still the job, and individuals’ future prospects.

What impact would the proposed revisions to the Blue Card Directive have on Swedish companies?

If the current proposal is not improved, it will lead to more difficulties in recruiting third-country nationals. This would cause different systems for those with higher education or corresponding professional backgrounds, and for other groups of workers. The revised Blue Card Directive would add a bureaucratic approach to determining which type of professional experience is equivalent to academic degrees.

How well was the position of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise accepted internationally? As it was discussed during the hearing, it seems Sweden's national system was considered highly positive.

Several participants expressed the view that countries should be able to maintain their own national systems parallel to the revised Blue Card Directive. Not least because these national systems function better. But an improved Blue Card scheme may play a greater role in Europe’s future, especially if it covers broader categories by lowering the salary threshold. But this will not replace the more general system we have in Sweden, where the employer determines their recruitment needs, regardless of any theoretical skills level.

Emma Lund


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