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Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Europe's immigration vision
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By Oana Lungescu in Brussels

The European Commission, the EU's executive body, has proposed new rules to co-ordinate immigration policy across the European Union, making it easier for foreigners to find work in the 15 member states.

At the same time, the European Commission said it would like to see stronger penalties against the smuggling of people.

Only member states, together with their civil societies and local authorities, know how much their societies are capable of integrating

European Commissioner Antonio Vitorino
The proposals come as several European countries, faced with the prospect of an ageing workforce, are looking at ways to attract foreign workers.

As he outlined the new proposals, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Antonio Vitorino, said immigration was neither a problem, nor a solution - it was a reality that had to be properly managed.

"This is just a first step for immigrants to come in legally and be given work permits and a generous set of rights if there are jobs, as we are increasingly aware that there are such jobs available for third country immigrants that cannot be filled by the local job market," he said.

At the moment, no one knows how many foreigners work legally in the EU. Mr Vitorino would like EU governments to make these figures public every month.

He also envisages an EU-wide data-base of job offers that would be made available to citizens of other countries. And he proposes simplified procedures for granting residence and work permits at the same time for those seeking jobs in the EU, similar to American green cards.

Mr Vitorino said that, as borders were lifted across the EU, decisions taken in one country had an impact everywhere else, but he made it clear that the European Commission had no intention of setting national quotas for immigration.

The Netherlands brings in people to pick tulips and asparagus
"We do not intend to decide by directive the numbers of immigrants that our economies and societies are prepared to absorb... Only member states, together with their civil societies and local authorities, know how much their societies are capable of integrating."

With racial tension high in many parts of Europe, Mr Vitorino suggested that nationals of EU member states should be given preference for jobs, followed by citizens from the applicant countries in central and southern Europe.

Only then, he said, should citizens from other parts of the world be considered.

Under the proposals, new immigrants would only be granted a work permit in one EU country and would gain the possibility to seek a job elsewhere in the EU only after five years.

Smuggling penalties

Immigration is a hotly debated issue in Europe, which faces huge labour shortages over the next decades, especially in high-tech sectors.

Some countries, such as the Netherlands, are taking in foreigners every year, especially to pick tulips and asparagus.

I think that if you have legal channels [for immigration], you will be entitled to be more stringent in fighting against illegal immigration

European Commissioner Antonio Vitorino
Belgium is currently considering the introduction of immigration quotas. And last week in Germany, the EU's largest state, an official report recommended issuing long-term permits to up to 50,000 foreigners a year.

Mr Vitorino said that the German recommendations were in line with his own, but he said he had in mind both skilled and unskilled workers.

And he said making legal immigration easier should go hand in hand with harsher penalties for people smugglers.

"I think that if you have legal channels [for immigration], you will be entitled to be more stringent in fighting against illegal immigration."

Mixed messages

At least half a million people are believed to enter the EU illegally every year, but Mr Vitorino admitted he had no clear figures.

He hopes that his proposals on making legal immigration easier will get the unanimous approval of EU leaders next December.

But, while political leaders are aware of the need to fill the shortages in their labour markets, ordinary people in the EU say they are afraid of cheap foreign workers getting their jobs and frequently confuse illegal migrants with legal workers.

This ambivalence was reflected in Germany's insistence earlier this year to bar workers from Poland and other applicant countries for up to seven years after they join the EU.

So Mr Vitorino will have a tough job to get his proposals through.

See also:

04 Jul 01 | Europe
Germany's immigration revolution
06 Feb 01 | Europe
Asylum seekers: Europe's dilemma
01 Aug 00 | Europe
Germany tackles skills shortage
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