Commission Green Paper on managing economic migration to EU

The European Commission issued a Green Paper launching a public consultation on how to manage economic migration at EU level in January 2005. The Commission believes that some coordination is needed and stakeholders are asked to submit their comments on the idea and content of such an EU-wide initiative by April 2005.

On 11 January 2005, the European Commission issued the Green Paper entitled On an EU approach to managing economic migration. The Green Paper aims to launch a process of in-depth discussion that will involve EU institutions, Member States and civil society on the most appropriate form of Community rules for admitting economic migrants, as well as the benefits of adopting a common framework on this matter. It concerns admission procedures for the economic migration of 'third-country' (non-EU) nationals and does not deal with the free movement of EU citizens within the Union.

The Commission has opened a public consultation period, which will last until 15 April 2005. Subsequently, the Commission will organise a public hearing in July 2005 to discuss the Green Paper among all the different stakeholders involved, with a view to producing a policy action plan by the end of the year.

The Commission states that economic migration already contributes directly to the economic and social development of the EU. It is likely to increase and to play an even greater role in meeting the needs of the EU for labour as demographic change reduces the size of the EU labour force. On current trends, the EU’s working age population is predicted to decline by some 20 million between 2010 and 2030. The Commission maintains that economic migration can help foster entrepreneurship, increase competitiveness and meet the Lisbon strategy’s economic and employment goals (EU0004241F).

The existing system means that economic migrants from outside the EU face a different set of rules for every Member State and the Commission is suggesting that it would be in the interests of both migrants and Member States to have a common set of basic procedures, definitions and criteria applied throughout the EU. It is keen to stress, however, that these would complement national admission systems and that Member States would remain fully in control of determining the numbers of economic migrants they admit.

In developing an EU approach to labour migration, the Green Paper deals with a number of key issues, set out below.

What degree of harmonisation?

The Commission considers that any Community policy should be progressive, to ensure a gradual and smooth move from national to Community rules. As for the scope of any future legislation, it has identified a number of alternative approaches, including: a horizontal approach; a series of sectoral legislative proposals; or the establishment of a common fast-track procedure in cases of specific labour and skills gaps. It seeks comments on a range of issues, including: to what extent a European policy on labour migration should be developed and what the level of Community intervention on this issue should be; and whether a European migration law should aim at providing a comprehensive legal framework covering almost any third-country national coming to the EU, or focus on specific groups of immigrants.

Admission procedures for paid employment

The Green Paper seeks answers to such questions as: how the principle of 'Community preference' may be applied in an effective way; which categories of third-country national - if any, and apart from long-term residents - should be given preference over newly arriving third-country nationals; and whether facilitating mobility of third-country workers from one Member State to another would be beneficial for the EU economy and national labour markets; and how this could be put into practice in an effective way, and with which limits or facilitations.

The Green Paper examines the issue of admission systems, and asks whether the admission of third-country nationals should be conditional on a concrete job vacancy or whether there should also be the possibility for Member States to admit third-country nationals without such a condition. It asks for comments about minimum periods during which job vacancies should be published before a third-country applicant can be considered for the post, and in what other way it could be proved effectively that there was a need for third-country workers. It asks what types of alternative optional systems stakeholders envisage.

Admission procedures for self-employment

The document seeks responses to the question of whether the EU should have common rules for the admission of self-employed third-country nationals, and if so, under what conditions.

Applications for work and residence permits

The Commission states that a single national application procedure leading to one combined residence and work permit (a 'one-stop-shop' procedure) could simplify the existing procedures. Alternatively, this issue need not be regulated at EU level and a compromise position could be to propose a single application for separate work and residence permits, although this procedure would result in the issuing of two different permits according to national rules. The Green Paper seeks opinions on these issues and whether there may be other options.

Possibility of changing employer or sector

The Green Paper poses the question as to whether there should be limitations to the mobility of the third-country worker inside the labour market of the Member State of residence. Also, if there were some form of permit, should the holder of such a permit be the employer or employee, or should it be held jointly.

Migrants’ rights

The Green Paper states that migrant workers should have secure legal status, irrespective of whether they wish to return to their countries of origin or to obtain a more permanent status. Since it also notes that third-country workers should enjoy the same treatment as EU citizens, in particular with regard to certain basic economic and social rights before they obtain long-term resident status, there remain questions as to what specific rights should be granted to temporary workers and whether the enjoyment of rights should be conditional on a minimum stay. In this case, the Commission seeks input on which rights they should be, and for how long the minimum stay should be.

Accompanying measures

Several Commission communications have stressed that a successful EU policy on economic migration requires migration flows to be managed in cooperation with the countries of origin and transit, taking into account their reality and needs. Measures taken must be accompanied by strong policies to integrate the migrants admitted. Furthermore, other issues come into play, such as the effect on the countries of origin of the outflow of skills and the investment they have made in such migrants, as well as the difficulties for migrants to maintain social and cultural ties with their countries of origin. Also, there is seen to be a need for measures to facilitate the return of temporary workers at the end of their contracts. The Green Paper seeks comments on such questions as what kind of accompanying measures should be envisaged to facilitate admission and integration of economic migrants, and what the EU could do to encourage 'brain circulation' and address the potentially adverse effects of 'brain drain'.


The Green Paper concludes that the admission of economic migrants is the cornerstone of any immigration policy and that it is therefore necessary to address it at European level in the context of the progressive development of a coherent Community immigration policy. It calls for a system that is transparent, non-bureaucratic and fully operational, which should function in the interests of all parties involved. It also notes that the EU must pay serious attention to the possible negative effects on the country of origin of an outflow of migrants.


The debate on economic migration to the EU has been going on for some years. In 2001, however, a proposal for a Directive dealing with 'the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purpose of paid employment and self-employed economic activities' (COM(2001)386)) did not attract sufficient political support from the Council of Ministers. Since then, the Commission has published a Communication on immigration, integration and employment, which acknowledged the impact of demographic decline and ageing on the economy and stressed the need to review immigration procedures. The 2004 November European Council also recognised the importance of the debate on economic migration.

Thus, when launching the Green Paper, Franco Frattini, the justice Commissioner and Vice-President of the Commission acknowledged the need for a common strategy and the problems of finding one that suits all the actors involved. He said: 'The time has come for choosing a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach and to first hear the views of all relevant actors involved. I am fully aware that Member States, the European Parliament, trade unions, employers and other stakeholders have different points of view on the issue as well as different needs.' However, Mr Frattini and the employment affairs Commissioner, Vladimir Spidla, both stressed that all the different views needed to be reconciled if 'Europe is to have a common comprehensive strategy on economic migration taking account of demographic changes and allowing for better management of migration flows.' He continued: 'This will be crucial for achieving the EU’s aim of becoming the most competitive economy, and therefore for the fulfilment of the Lisbon objectives.'

It is evident that a common strategy on this issue could indeed assist would-be economic migrants by providing a less formidable and more cohesive set of procedures, criteria and definitions than presently exist. However, it is also apparent that Member States will be determined to maintain their over-riding right to decide for themselves who they allow into their countries. Future action in this area will depend on responses to this Green Paper. (Beatrice Harper, IRS)

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