EU Migration ‘schizophrenia’: Need workers, close borders?

Europe’s economy needs one million foreign workers each year, said Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, in January. This is due to the demographic change in Europe, which is resulting in a decline in the working age population.

So-called EU Talent Partnerships are presented as a solution to this challenge. Announced in June 2021, the aim is to attract non-EU citizens into the European workforce and fill gaps in the labour market. The Commission considers Talent Partnerships a “triple win” – beneficial for the EU’s economy, the non-EU partner countries that often face high unemployment rates and for the workers themselves.

A patchwork of small-scale projects

Initial plans foresaw the establishment of the first partnerships by the end of 2022, but concrete agreements have yet to be reached. So far, the EU has funded various pilot projects, which were grouped under the Talent Partnership umbrella. They vary in design but often include training initiatives in non-EU partner countries and assistance to workers in the relocation process.

“It is difficult to say when a Talent Partnership begins and what it actually means,” notes Bernd Parusel, senior researcher at the Swedish Institute for European Policy studies, adding that agreements are strewn across different international and bilateral agreements.

Despite millions in funding for the pilots, they have led to only a small number of recruitments by European companies. For instance, the MATCH project, matching Senegalese and Nigerian employees with employers in four EU countries, resulted in only eight people being recruited. 

Another pilot, the THAMM project, is managed by multiple organisations without a unified evaluation. In Germany, the Agency for Development Cooperation (GIZ) supported over 400 people in finding work or apprenticeships. But determining the impact beyond the project duration is challenging since participants were only followed between three to six months, while apprenticeships typically last multiple years.

“These are interesting pilot projects, but they are not enough to meet the huge needs we already witness in some sectors,” says Jean-Louis De Brouwer, Director of the European Affairs Programme at the Egmont Institute, who doubts that the projects are scalable to the extent required.

Talent Partnerships as a ‘friendly gadget’ in migration negotiations

“There is kind of a schizophrenia between the toxic debate on migration in many countries and the acknowledgement that they need workers,” says De Brouwer.

Commissioner Johansson promotes the Talent Partnerships as an aspect of negotiations on migration with partner countries and emphasises their role in negotiating readmission agreements. This focus is also reflected in the selection of partner countries.

Asked about the current status of Talent Partnership negotiations, the European Commission Spokesperson for home affairs, Anitta Hipper, states that partnerships with Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh are prioritised and roundtable exchanges are planned for the first half of 2024.

Through the partnerships, third countries should be engaged “on migration management, in particular by helping to reduce irregular migration and incentivising partners to cooperate on return and readmission,” Hipper writes. Partnerships with Nigeria and Senegal depend “on an improved cooperation on the full range of migration issues”.

An internal EU document from February 2024 reads: “It is considered that the timing to launch a talent partnership [with Senegal] is not ripe, considering the overall level of cooperation, including on readmission”. For Nigeria, a “readmission agreement is the first step towards a comprehensive partnership, of which the Talent Partnership would be a component.”

Partner countries criticise this conditionality. Amongst them, Naela Gabr, Chairperson of the National Coordinating Committee for Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration and Trafficking in Persons in Egypt, emphasises Egypt’s situation as a transit country and its efforts to combat “illegal” migration: “We prevent a tsunami of migration to Europe”. In her opinion, labour mobility projects can be a win for everybody but they require consistent support and funding.

At the same time, “cash for migrant control” deals worth millions between the EU and Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and most recently Lebanon have drawn criticism from civil society organisations for lacking human rights safeguards and funding inhumane detentions and forced returns.

Parusel comments: “The EU is prepared to go to great lengths to control irregular migration, even to the point of making dubious deals with third countries. There is this outsourcing dimension: Money is given to other countries so that they can take over migration control for us”. 

In this context, Marie Walter-Franke, researcher at the German Expert Council on Integration and Migration (SVR), regards Talent Partnerships as “little more than a friendly gadget” in negotiations otherwise focused on returns and migration control. She has observed that partner countries “don’t take the EU seriously”, as requests for cooperation on migration control and returns are not met with concrete offers from the European side, which would give substance to the Talent Partnerships. 

This could be simpler admission procedures, such as point-based systems already used in Canada and other countries, and visa options for jobs of all skill levels.

Many bureaucratic hurdles remain

The fact that legal competences on visa regulations and the recognition of qualifications are shared between the EU and member states contributes to the difficulties employers and non-EU workers face.

The Commission has recognised this issue and called on member states to better implement existing EU legislation. It has also proposed a revision of EU legislation setting the framework for the legal residence of non-EU workers in the EU. 

The recent adoption of the revised Single Permit Directive is one way the EU seeks to simplify the application process for non-EU workers, ensuring quicker decisions, and enabling them to change their employer and maintain their residency during periods of unemployment. Improvements regarding long-term residency were also proposed by the Commission but put on hold in March, as Parliament and Council could not reach an agreement.

In addition to residence permits, the recognition of qualifications can pose another hurdle. Non-EU citizens working in the EU are nearly twice as likely as EU nationals in their home countries to work in jobs below their qualification level. To address this, the Commission has proposed to simplify procedures to recognise foreign qualifications in November.

“It’s not just about the number of people moved”

Organisations overseeing the pilot projects, such as the Migration Partnership Facility (MPF), under the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, stress the importance of testing new methods to gain experience and establish cooperation on migration. Diana Stefanescu, Project Specialist for Labour Mobility at the MPF at the time of the interview, highlights: "These are very early stage projects. It’s not just about the number of people moved."

A cost-value analysis conducted by Digital Explorers, a partnership between Lithuania and Nigeria under the MPF, projected that the financial benefits would exceed the €1.3mn in EU funding. This took into account that the number of people staying in Europe would gradually decrease after the completion of the project.

Stefanescu adds: “The pilot projects are the first step to opening a door to much more cooperation and impact, and I think potential for this is strong but more funding is needed.”

The Commission states that the scale of pilot projects has increased over time and that it “stands ready to continue supporting scaled up initiatives. This depends also on the commitment of Member States, which remain competent to establish volumes of admission to their territories.”

EU focuses its spending on border control

The EU has invested around €82.2mn in Talent Partnership projects to date. Funding has mainly come from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), the Neighbourhood Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) and the EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which has been criticised by NGOs for diverting development aid to stop “irregular” migration.

According to Commissioner Johansson, the EU saw 300,000 “irregular arrivals” in 2023 compared to 3.5 million people arriving through “regular channels”. Yet EU funding focuses largely on curbing migration and increasing returns.

While the volume for the AMIF increased by 29%, from €6.7bn to €8.7bn (2018 prices) compared to the last EU budget, funding largely aimed at border protection has more than doubled. The EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, alone is set to receive an unprecedented €5.6bn between 2021 and 2027.

Europe’s economy needs foreign workers 

As labour shortages continue to rise, there is a growing interest of companies to recruit from abroad. Stefanescu from the MPF is optimistic that companies will step up their investment, which is necessary to make the recruitment of foreign workers sustainable. Yet in spite of the private sector’s interest, some projects could not be launched due to the lack of political support. “Some governments are worried about the political impact”.

“Providing safe and legal pathways is a priority,” the Commission promised at the launch of the Talent Partnerships. Whether the EU can fulfil this promise largely depends on the political will of member states to implement policies that make it attractive for people to work in Europe.

This not only includes simplifying admission procedures and aligning them with the demands of the labour market. It also requires improving working conditions and addressing discrimination of non-EU citizens, who are more likely to work in shortage occupations and more frequently exposed to discrimination.

“It takes courage to pursue a policy that is not based on this fear that too many people or not the right kind of people might come,” says Walter-Franke. 

A failure to address labour and skills shortages will negatively impact the European economy, especially as the demographic change and the green and digital transition continue to put a strain on the labour market. Using Talent Partnerships as a bargaining chip to enforce migration control makes them miss out on their potential.

This article is part of “Crossborder Journalism Campus”, an Erasmus+ project of the University of Gothenburg, Leipzig University and Centre de Formation des Journalistes in Paris.

Additional reporting: Ann-Marie Amthor, Gabriela Ângelo, Jonas Armbruster, Marissa Boll, Märta
Bonde, Robin Bucher, Solène Cahon, Anatole Clement, Sehend Mayiwar,
Elena Roney.

Author Bio

Stephanie Jauss and Vera Pokorny have researched EU Talent Partnerships as part of a cross-border investigation on labour shortages. Together with Gabriela Ângelo, Märta Bonde, Robin Bucher and Sehend Mayiwar, the students of MSc Investigative Journalism, University of Gothenburg, have collaborated with teams in Germany and France.