Blue card lottery

Hannah Bettsworth // 22 February 2019

Ahead of the European elections, migration remains one of the main challenges facing the EU. Populist and Eurosceptic movements have sought political capital from it, while their opponents are faced with a choice about whether to do the same or to make the case for safe and legal migration. Current policies have led to an ongoing humanitarian crisis, which has harmed the reputation of the EU and its member states. This has opened up a space for innovative new solutions that benefit both host countries and potential migrants.

One such solution would be copying the USA’s historical openness to diverse migration, through its migration lottery. This was originally designed to benefit Irish and Italian migrants underrepresented in migration figures. These days, it primarily provides Africans with the chance to live and work in the USA as permanent residents. There is also demand among Africans to live and work in Europe as permanent residents, but, without legal channels to do so, they resort to paying smugglers and making asylum claims as the only option open to them in order to gain a foothold on European territory.

The EU does have a Blue Card system, which is nowhere near as ambitious as the Green Card. In its current form, it provides opportunities for highly skilled migrants with a job offer, valid for one to four years with equal treatment to nationals of that host Member State. However, it involves restrictions on freedom of movement – even after meeting the stringent admission criteria, Blue Card holders cannot freely take up work in any Member State. Additionally, only 68,850 people have been granted a Blue Card since 2009, and so take-up of the scheme is particularly low. Of those who do obtain a Blue Card, the vast majority do so go to Germany – representing 89% of Blue Cards issued in 2012-13 – as it lacks an effective national high-skilled migration scheme. Reform, although unlikely in the current political climate, is necessary to make it a true equivalent of the Green Card and differentiate it from a national visa, ending confusion for workers and employers arising from competing national schemes.

There are three options for making the Blue Card a true alternative to national visas. Firstly, improved access to permanent residency. It currently takes five years to become eligible to apply for permanent residency – this could be reduced to three years for Blue Card holders. Alternatively, the Blue Card’s validity period could be extended to five years to allow beneficiaries to gain a permanent residence permit under existing EU law.

Secondly, ending the long, bureaucratic family unification process and allowing families to migrate together is a benefit extended to the spouses and unmarried children under 21 of US Diversity Visa winners.

Thirdly, improved freedom of movement.  Currently, Blue Card holders must remain in their first Member State for 18 months and then reapply for a new Blue Card in order to move to a job in another Member State, which makes the Blue Card barely advantageous over national visa schemes. A single EU-wide labour permit, or reducing the waiting period to a year, would increase its appeal to potential migrants.

The Green Card also has lower skill requirements – a high school equivalent diploma or two years of vocational experience in a variety of lower-to-middle skilled fields – and the EU system would need to do the same in order to provide options to people currently deprived of them.

However, it would have to appeal to Member States to get their agreement for reform. In the current climate, it is a true challenge to pass ambitious migration reforms. There could, however, be real benefits for Member States willing to think outside the box and take a chance on an innovative migration stream. Migrants from countries that may not have established communities in the EU can act as ‘trailblazers‘, establishing those communities and helping attract more of their fellow nationals to bring their skills and their money to Europe.

Europe’s prosperity is a draw factor for people all over the world, just as in the USA, and States who manage it correctly will benefit from additional workers. Such communities can also build trade and investment links between their host and origin countries, with the diaspora serving as facilitators. Additionally, there is a general tendency for lottery immigrants in the USA to be more skilled than those who immigrate as a result of family relationships. The lotteries actually increased the labour market quality of the immigrant pool, because the kind of people who migrate as lottery winners are those who have enough skill to find a job without pre-existing contacts and have the means to establish themselves in a new country.

‘No new arrivals’ would be difficult to implement; migration increases as poor countries grow and only tails off once they reach upper-middle income. The choice Member States face is to reap the benefits of safe, legal channels, or continue to handle chaotic, irregular arrivals.

The practicalities of the policy would differ slightly from those of the American system, which provides 50,000 visas to citizens of countries who have low rates of migration to the USA – in other words, those countries which have had under 50,000 citizens emigrating to the USA over the last 5 years, excluding asylum seekers and refugees. As the EU is made up of 28 countries, setting its threshold at under 50,000 citizens immigrating to the EU-28 in the past year would keep the number of excluded countries reasonably low and ensure a pathway for African labour migrants who otherwise rely on asylum as their only route to Europe.

As Blue Card reform has been frozen in the legislative process since 2017, in the next mandate, the European Institutions and Member States should take the chance to start again and innovate. The migration issue is unlikely to disappear from the agenda. States can choose whether to implement policies benefiting themselves and migrants or to continue with the politically and physically risky status quo. There is no opting out of that decision.

The opinions in this article belong to to author only and are not necessarily representative of EPICENTER or its member think tanks. 

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