The European Commission’s legal migration ‘policy’: good intentions, limited impact

On 27 April, the Commission proposed a package of five different measures to facilitate legal migration to the EU from non-EU countries. Although the individual measures are useful, they will do little on their own to create more immigration opportunities because access to the EU labour market is controlled by member states.


On 27 April, the Commission proposed a package of five different measures to facilitate legal migration to the EU from non-EU countries. Although the individual measures are useful, they will do little on their own to create more immigration opportunities because access to the EU labour market is controlled by member states. 

To put the proposed measures into perspective, it is helpful to consider the wider context of EU and member state competencies in legal migration policy. The EU mainly establishes procedural rules, some migrant rights, and the overall legal framework for legal immigration, including family reunion, work, and study. Within this framework, each member state decides how many third-country citizens it will admit to its labour market, which will ultimately also determine the number of immigrants eligible for family reunification.  

Arguably, this allocation of competencies to the EU and national levels reflects the principle of subsidiarity: welfare systems (including active labour market policies and unemployment insurance), labour market performance, perceived labour shortages, and hence the potential for mutually beneficial labour migration from third countries all differ across EU member states. It seems logical, then, to ‘attach’ immigrants to the labour market and welfare system of the member state that first admitted them – until they qualify for “long-term residence EU” status by fulfilling conditions that include minimum residence, social integration (including knowledge of the member state’s language), and economic self-sufficiency. Only then may third-country citizens seek employment in other EU member states, in a broadly similar way to how EU citizens enjoy the right to free movement.  

At the same time, leaving it to individual member states to decide how many third-country labour migrants may enter the EU raises at least two challenges. First, a member state that encourages immigration inevitably diminishes the employment opportunities of other member states’ citizens: immigration will likely replace some intra-EU mobility of workers that would otherwise occur. It is not immediately clear whether, as a result, individual member states will admit ‘too few’ or ‘too many’ immigrants from an EU point of view – but there is clearly an ‘external effect’ on other member states and their citizens.

Second, it becomes difficult for the European Commission to use legal migration opportunities as a policy tool – for example, to let refugees access protection in the EU safely (currently most refugees enter the EU irregularly) or to offer substantial legal migration opportunities as part of broad agreements with African countries of origin on migration management (in a similar way to how the Western Balkans regulation in Germany provides work visas for jobseekers from the Western Balkans as part of a larger framework for cooperation, including on migration management).   

These challenges explain why the Commission’s claim on 27 April that it is proposing an “ambitious (…) legal migration policy” seems exaggerated. The proposed legislative improvements, such as streamlined procedures for issuing the single permit for work and residence, are welcome. In itself, however, such streamlining will not cut waiting times for visa interviews at member state embassies in non-EU countries. Indeed, these waiting times are often cited as a major obstacle to migration to the EU. The proposed revisions of the Long-Term Residents Directive seek to improve the mobility of third-country citizens in the EU only after they have become fully integrated into an EU member state (otherwise, they would not qualify for “long-term residence EU” status in the first place). The number of immigrants who will benefit from the proposed rule changes is therefore likely to remain small. 

The proposed steps towards Talent Partnerships (in brief, training workers in developing countries to meet job requirements both at home and in the EU) and a Talent Pool (a digital platform to match job applicants from outside the EU – initially from Ukraine – with EU job offers) go in the right direction for promoting migration that benefits all parties involved. That said, however, experience shows that skill (“talent”) partnerships inevitably involve a strong bilateral element: they provide training that builds on trainees’ education, job experience, and language skills (all country-of-origin specific) to upgrade their professional skills for use at home and in the country of destination (with a requirement for specific formal qualifications and language skills). Since job requirements in high-income countries are both demanding and country-specific, EU member state authorities, social partners, firms, and providers of vocational training will all need to be heavily involved to make skill partnerships a success on a sufficient scale. The EU will likely be little more than a facilitator or financial sponsor of this. Of course, the bilateral structure of a skill partnership may turn plurilateral when several countries of origin or destination share the same language, education system, or job requirements. 

With the proposed Talent Pool, it will be interesting to see which applicants (in terms of education, occupation, language skills, etc) seek jobs and receive offers in more than one EU member state. Many migrants find jobs abroad through their informal networks; it may be difficult to codify and pass on such information via a digital platform. For many skilled jobs, knowledge of the destination country’s language is critical, reducing the range of destination countries accessible to any one migrant.

The Commission’s fifth set of proposed measures is still vague, but includes a work and travel programme in the EU for young people from non-EU countries. This would be very attractive if it enabled individuals to visit Europe who cannot at present obtain a visa for the Schengen area due to a lack of funds and because of stringent visa regulations. 

Overall then, the Commission‘s proposals represent pragmatic and useful steps to further develop the legal framework for legal labour migration to the EU. In and of themselves, however, these proposals will not substantially increase immigration opportunities for non-EU citizens. Member state control over labour market access is in line with the principle of subsidiarity as long as it allows member states to design their immigration policies in response to their own perceived labour shortages and demographic trends. Furthermore, member state involvement is also crucial for successfully scaling up existing pilots for skill partnerships with low- and middle-income countries. Yet at the same time, member state control may fall short when the European Commission seeks to use migration opportunities to the EU as a policy tool – for example in the context of managing migration jointly with African countries of origin. In this case, coordination among member states (or at least, ‘willing’ member states) to generate commitments on labour market access would be needed for effective policy design. 

Photo credits: Quality Stock Arts/ [cover], Institut für Weltwirtschaft, Kiel / Studio 23 [headshot]

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