Thursday, 25 October 2007

Forget green, go blue!

The EU unveiled its plans for the union-wide “blue card” yesterday. It’s meant to be modeled on, as well as a competitor to, the US green card. Though the card appears to be a logical solution to the problem of hiring skilled labor, it appears to do little to solve the growing problem of illegal immigration in Europe.

The blue card will be like the American green card in that it will be based on a points system that takes into account job skills, language proficiency and the presence of family in the country already. For example someone with an MBA who speaks English and German would have a better chance of getting one of these cards than someone who doesn’t speak any European language and has no family in the EU.

The measure comes at a time when EU countries are facing a severe skills shortage, particularly in the areas of engineering, healthcare and IT. With the EU population aging rapidly, there is an urgent need to bring new immigrants onto the continent. But the way this has been done so far is considered by many to have been not only ineffective, but detrimental to the societies involved.

Till now, a large percentage of immigrants into Europe came on humanitarian grounds like asylum and family reunification. These immigrants don’t necessarily come with any specific skills, and are often unlikely to speak the language of their new country. In many cases, these immigrant communities haven’t learned the language upon arriving either.

This situation has resulted in a Europe-wide backlash against these immigrant communities and the government policies allowing them in, as evidenced by the huge SVP win in Switzerland over the weekend on the back of an anti-immigrant, nationalist election campaign. But the problem is that even though unemployment in many EU countries is high (10% in Belgium and 15% in Poland according to the BBC), many businesses are having trouble recruiting the skilled workers they need. So the blue card, in one sense, is an effort to remedy the situation by importing the ‘right’ kind of immigrants.

Under current visa laws in most European countries, a non-EU citizen has to be sponsored by an employer in the host country in order to work there, and that employer must prove that the job cannot be filled by any EU citizen. This hurdle is nearly impossible to pass, and employers across Europe consistently complain about their inability to hire people from outside the union, particularly those from the US.

In my case, even though my move here was an intra-company transfer, my company still had to submit documentation proving that I could do the job better than any European new hire. For an intra-company transfer this is relatively easy to prove, because obviously someone who’s already been working for the company for a year knows the job better than a new hire from anywhere. But it would have been impossible for me to find a British company to hire me out of the blue, especially since I’m not an engineer or MBA.

But the problem is now that I’m here, I’m effectively trapped at my company, because my visa is only good for this specific job, and no new employer would be able to hire me. This creates a problem for me because, although I like my company, I don’t want to stay at this job forever. And yet I do want to stay in London, and I don’t want to go back to the US. This is why I’m in the process of getting Italian citizenship through ancestry. With an EU passport, I can work here in London or anywhere else in the EU. But suppose I this Italian citizenship thing doesn’t work out? My options are stay at this job, or go home.

Recognizing this is not an attractive situation for skilled workers considering moving to a country, the EU has configured the blue card so that once you are sponsored once by a company, you can then use the blue card to move to a new job anywhere in Europe (this would be ideal for me, although hopefully in two years time I won’t need it). There are also additional benefits that come with having the card.

So the idea is to create a channel of legal migration that would make moving to Europe more attractive for foreign skilled workers, and keep them from going to the US instead. Right now 50 percent of skilled migrants worldwide go to the US, and only five percent go to Europe, according to this BBC report. Considering that a large part of this 50 percent is actually people leaving Europe (the continent has suffered from a brain drain to the US for many years), this is a truly alarming statistic for the continent.

However one part of the EU’s presentation of this new card yesterday seemed puzzling to me. I keep hearing representatives asserting that the card is also an effort to prevent the same type of illegal immigration situation that exists in the US from happening here in Europe, and many commentators have talked about the new rules in that exact same way.

Take a look at this blog entry from SlowDecline, arguing that the blue card is “the exact opposite of the United States system where thousands of companies hire illegal immigrants and are given a wink and a nod from the immigration service…within 6 months of employment the worker in the EU could have their family members join them even without a permanent residence permit. They would also be treated and have the same benefits as EU nationals now receive including social assistance, pensions and tax benefits, as well as access to public housing.”

Maybe I’m missing something here, but how are the two things at all related? The blue card specifically refers to skilled workers, so how would it help rectify the situation of illegal unskilled industrial/agricultural jobs? As far as I can tell, this blue card is really only applicable to people like myself. So although some of the language around this card seems to be about avoiding a US-style mass illegal immigration problem, I’m not sure I see anything in it that actually addresses this.

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