11th Dec 2023

EU turns to legal migrants to fill labour shortages

  • EU Commission's vice-president Margaritis Schinas. For every person aged 65 or over in the EU-27, there are just over three people of working age (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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The EU Commission, on Wednesday (12 October), unveiled a "toolbox" for addressing Europe's demographic changes, after member states, earlier in June, raised concerns about the impact of an ageing population on public finances and labour markets.

The toolbox is based on four elements — migration, parents, youth and older people — and includes regulatory instruments, policies, and specific funding.

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Next November, the commission will present a further set of proposals on talent mobility, as EU commission's vice-president Margaritis Schinas recalled this Tuesday during a conference in Vienna.

"I know that this package will be violently attacked by the populists and Europhobes," Schinas said, adding: "They will immediately jump on the argument that Europe is opening up the gates: We are not. We are opening a door so that people stop jumping from the window".

Asked about the existing hostile environment around migration in some member states, commission vice-president Dubravka Šuica also said the new toolbox is focused on legal migration.

"Last year, we had more than 3 million people who moved to Europe legally, 300,000 people who moved to Europe illegally," Šuica said.

"Migration is one of several tools, it is certainly not the only one", she said.

The EU Talent Pool, the "central piece" of the package, in the words of Schinas, could help reduce these differences.

"This will be a platform that will allow third-country nationals, especially from the countries of origin that we need to stabilise in Africa, to apply for [EU] job vacancies in areas and sectors that we have identified," Schinas said.

In other words, the system would match European employers with third-country jobseekers to fill existing gaps in the most pressing sectors.

"We will try to reduce at the same time the irregular migration, plug key gaps in our labour markets and create political and economic stability in our relations with other countries," Schinas said.

The commission is currently revising the directive on the single permit to reside and work in the EU for third-country nationals, as well as the rules for the so-called EU Blue Card — a permit issued to highly qualified individuals.

In 2021, around 29,000 Blue Cards were issued in the EU, although in very concentrated areas.

More than 67 percent of them were to work in Germany, followed by 10 percent to work in Poland, and zero percent to work in Hungary or Slovakia.

With the current data available for 2022, an increase in these permits can be observed, although their destination countries are still highly concentrated in almost the same member states.

A 'helping hand to member states'

Meanwhile, reality is stark: Europe is an ageing continent.

For every person aged 65 or over in the EU-27, there are just over three people of working age, and the proportion of older people is growing.

Combined with the fact that the EU's working-age population will shrink by 57.4 million by 2100, the risk of a negative impact on competitiveness will only increase.

"There is a clear sense of urgency to act," Šuica told reporters on Wednesday. "Our focus was on making sure that demographic change does not become an obstacle to the EU's competitive edge", she said.

Spending on health, long-term care, and pensions is also expected to increase. Public expenditure is already projected to rise from 24.6 percent of GDP in 2019 to almost 27 percent in 2040.

And these trends threaten to hamper Europe's dual green and digital transition and exacerbate the issue of labour shortages.

In 2022, around three-in-10 firms reported labour shortages and 74 percent of SMEs experienced a shortage of skilled workers, despite high unemployment rates in the EU.

The toolkit was described by Šuica as a "helping hand to member states", recalling that each one of them faces its own challenges and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

"It is not a strategy, it is not a policy, it is literally a set of tools that member states can pick and choose to best complement their own national strategies and measures," Šuica said.

While the Netherlands is facing housing problems, her native Croatia is struggling with a brain drain and Spain with a declining population in some of its regions, to name but a few.

Among those tools are the existing European Child Guarantee, the Youth Guarantee, the recommendation on adequate minimum income, and the EU directive on work-life balance.

Another 11 key tools are mentioned as the commission's next steps, mentioning dialogues on cohesion policy, the harnessing talent platform, and the talent mobility package.


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