28th Jan 2021


Time to revive Juncker's EU 'Blue Card' scheme

  • This is an opportunity for the EU. America's loss can be Europe's gain – but only if the bloc takes bold steps to become a leading destination for the world's most-talented and most-entrepreneurial (Photo: johnnyalive)

The United States might be a nation of immigrants, but most legal paths of US immigration have now been closed, including the well-known H1-B and J1 visa.

Strikingly, US Immigration and Customs enforcement also decided that foreign students whose autumn classes have been moved online can no longer stay in the country.

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This is an opportunity for the European Union. America's loss can be Europe's gain – but only if the bloc takes bold steps to become a leading destination for the world's most talented and most entrepreneurial.

As of now, visa and immigration policy regarding stays above 90 days by non-EU nationals, including work-related visas, remains in the hands of member states.

Some are taking the global competition for talent seriously.

Examples include France's program 'Passeport Talent' and Germany's decision to drop its resident labour market test, which required an official examination of whether available job openings could not filled by a high-skilled German or EU national before offering them to applicants from overseas.

However, even with the United States not living up to its reputation as an open society, the competition is intense.

Canada, Switzerland and even the post-Brexit UK remain highly attractive destinations for high-skilled workers. In the EU's immediate neighbourhood, the UK benefits from a world language, a global city, and an ecosystem of leading universities connected to an innovative private sector, especially in the south.

In 2009, the EU's Blue Card Directive sought to streamline the various schemes existing in different EU countries, but its implementation has been uneven.

The efforts to reform the directive, promised by the Juncker Commission, have fallen to the wayside somewhere between the European Council and the European Parliament.

It is easy to guess why.

The years following the refugee crisis of 2015 have not been auspicious to reasonable immigration policy debates. After the commission's heavy-handed proposal for mandatory relocation quotas, European institutions have been portrayed by the populist right as vehicles for unchecked mass immigration.

Given the tension between a borderless Schengen zone and the diversity of immigration and asylum policies at the national level, Europe cannot avoid a conversation about its immigration policies indefinitely.

While a common position on asylum – which would have likely prevented the chaos of 2015 and 2016 – remains a pipe dream, attracting the world's best and brightest is both good economics and good politics.

Hong Kong example

Europe cannot afford to remain on the sidelines while others compete for talent with agility, as the UK's bold move to offer Hong Kong nationals a path to British residency and eventually citizenship illustrates.

The experience of the United States is unambiguous about the role of foreign-born talent in driving innovation and economic growth.

Since 2000, 40 percent of all US Nobel laureates in medicine, chemistry, and physics have been immigrants. A recent paper by Stanford's Shai Bernstein and his coauthors shows that immigrants accounted for 23 percent of all innovation in the United States between 1976 and 2012.

Research also suggests that a one-percent increase in foreign STEM workers can lead to a seven to eight percent increase in native workers' wages.

America's inward turn notwithstanding, Europe still has a long way to come anywhere near the scale of high-skilled immigration into the United States.

Between 2000 and 2010, some 200,000 foreign patent-holders have moved to America, and three-quarters of all women aged 22-40 working in Silicon Valley were born overseas.

To compete for the global pool of talent, the EU has to bring the Blue Card Directive back to life. Ideally, a new streamlined EU-wide visa category ought to be created, similar to the conventional short-stay Schengen visa.

Although issued by governments of individual countries, like the short-stay visa, it should open the entire EU labour market to its holders, and not trap them in individual countries.

In doing so, the new visa category should avoid the pitfalls of the H1B program in the US – especially the delays in its issuance and the annual cap.

More importantly, the visa must be portable between employers and make explicit allowance for immigrants willing to start new businesses.

Five years since the refugee crisis, it is time to talk about the EU's immigration policy without triggering yet another cultural war.

Even those most opposed to large-scale immigration concede that a 'Willkommenskultur' [Welcome Culture] directed expressly at innovators and entrepreneurs is desirable.

The economic benefits might be significant, not least because of the economic crisis that Europe finds itself in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More importantly, if European leaders play it right, it can go a long way toward rebuilding trust in the ability of European institutions and mainstream politicians to manage immigration responsibly.

That would be no small feat.

Author bio

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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