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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 October 2007, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
EU pins skills hopes on 'blue card'
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, Brussels

Protesters in France against laws affecting migrants
There have been demonstrations in France over migrants' rights

The European Commission is hoping a new scheme will make it easier for skilled workers from outside the EU to get jobs in Europe.

Unemployment in many EU countries is high (10% in Belgium, 15% in Poland), but at the same time, many businesses are having trouble recruiting the skilled workers they need.

Like the American green card, the EU "blue card" will operate on a points system for skills and languages, with some weight given to family ties.

An engineer who speaks English and French, and who has family in France, would have a better chance of getting a permit than an unskilled labourer who speaks only a little English and has no family in the EU.

The areas worst affected by skills shortages are engineering, information technology, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and education, according to the European Commission.

We're doing this because there are no clear national channels for legal migration to the EU, unlike the US, Canada and Australia
EU official

Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland and Sweden are among the countries reporting shortages.

The EU's population is ageing. Many of the immigrants to the EU come in on humanitarian grounds, such as asylum or family reunification. 

As a result, the EU's new arrivals do not necessarily have the skills the labour market needs.

At the moment, 50% of skilled migrants worldwide go to the US. Only 5% go to Europe. 

The idea of the blue card is to create a channel of legal migration, making Europe more attractive, and more welcoming, to migrants with sought-after skills.

The Commission's proposal will enter the EU's legislative labyrinth later this year.

It is likely to be two years or more before it is adopted in whatever final form it takes.

"We're doing this because there are no clear national channels for legal migration to the EU, unlike the US, Canada and Australia," an EU official told the BBC. 

Crucially, the blue card will be attached to the individual, not to the job, the official said. 

At the moment, employers have to seek work permits for non-EU nationals. 

Rules vary from country to country, but usually the employer has to prove that no EU citizen is available to fill the job. 

And if the permit-holder wants to move to another job, his or her new employer has to apply for a new permit.

It is a cumbersome system for businesses, but one which reflects public anxiety about greater immigration at a time when many EU countries are struggling with high unemployment. 

Skills shortage

In Belgium, for example, the four parties negotiating the formation of a new government agree on little except the need to tighten the rules on immigration.

"It will be more difficult to obtain Belgian citizenship," says Ivo Belet, an MEP for the Flemish Christian Democrats, which emerged with the most seats from elections in June.

"Measures will be taken to fight illegal immigration," he explains. "That's what the population has been asking for."

But the tighter rules will not apply to skilled workers, he cautions, adding that Belgium is looking at creating a blue card of its own.

For employers in sectors such as engineering, the blue card scheme is long overdue.

The dredging company Jan De Nul, based in the Belgian town of Aalst, works all over the world, from Russia to Mexico. 

Its ships dredged much of the port of Dubai, helping to create the distinctive Palm Island on the waterfront. 

It has ships on order to the tune of 1.25bn euros (£872m) over the next two years: investment needed for it to complete the contracts on its books.

PROPOSED 'BLUE CARD'
Points system for skills and languages
Attached to individual, rather than job
Residence permit and work permit in one
Britain, Ireland and Denmark likely to opt out

Except it cannot get the staff it needs. 

It has hundreds of vacancies, including more than 560 for naval officers alone. 

This year, 208 students will complete their final year at naval college in Belgium. 

It employs some workers from outside the EU, when it can. 

The company welcomes the idea of the blue card, as long as it follows the American or Australian model.

"We absolutely need a Russian engineer," says Managing Director Jan Pieter De Nul.

"I found one. He studied here in Belgium. He was perfectly integrated; he spoke Flemish. I wasn't able to get papers for him."

So what happened? "He left."

Britain, Ireland and Denmark are all likely to opt out of the blue card scheme. 

The other 24 EU member states would set allocations of how many skilled workers they need in certain sectors. 

Card-holders would have to work in the member state which issued the card for a set period, probably two years, according to the EU official. 

After that, they would be free to seek work elsewhere.

The blue card would function as a residence permit and work permit in one. 

But it would be up to the member states to enforce the departure of workers once their permits had expired.

The EU has been tussling with the idea of a strategy on legal migration since 1999.

But sensitivities are acute, and migrants to Europe face different hurdles than in America.

For one thing, there is only one official language in the United States. In the European Union, there are at least 23.

"It will not be an easy discussion," the EU official admits.

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