The European Union is hoping its proposed blue-card program, named after the union’s blue flag and modeled after the United States’ green card, will help combat an imminent labor shortage by attracting 20 million highly skilled workers.
In addition to the United States, the blue card provides another option to workers who would have considered taking jobs in two other booming job markets — Canada and Australia. If successful, the reform could more than double the EU’s foreign-born population by 2030.
To be eligible, immigrants must have an employment contract, professional qualifications and a minimum salary level of at least three times the level of the national minimum wage.
According to the EU Web site, the 27-nation bloc has just 1.72 percent of highly qualified workers from outside the EU, compared with 3.2 percent in the U.S. Of the EU’s labor immigrants, 5 percent are skilled, a stark contrast to the United States’ 55 percent skilled laborers.
“Europe is an immigration continent,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a Time magazine article. “We are attractive to many. But we are not good enough at attracting highly skilled people. Nor are we young or numerous enough to keep the wheels of our societies and economies turning on our own.”
Proponents of the proposal hope the card will be more appealing than the green card and will attract the type of worker the EU is targeting.
The blue-card application process is expected to take less than three months. The green card can take anywhere from five to 10 years for an applicant to gain permanent residency. Green card critics say the United States program is plagued by backlogs, cumbersome processes and insufficient quotas.
The EU says the card will benefit from a single application procedure, which aims to simplify and accelerate the process. Officials also say foreign-born workers will receive the same rights at the workplace as EU nationals. Equal working conditions, pay, health care, safety, social security and pensions would be granted to all workers — whether EU natives or foreign-born employees — according to the EU Web site.
The card would provide educated immigrants with a two-year, renewable permit to live, work and travel within the EU, which also would be valid for workers’ families.
Blue card holders also can move to a second member state for work under certain conditions once they have been legal residents in the first member state for two years, according to the EU Web site. The workers then can add up periods of residence in different member nations to receive long-term or even permanent EU residence.
Despite the United States’ reliance on foreign countries for skilled workers and despite the card’s features, some say the program won’t have an effect on the U.S. work force, even as the U.S. Senate proposed a spending bill that would raise employers’ visa costs per worker.
“It may or not be a big deal in Europe. It’s not going to affect the U.S. — no big impact, and it won’t affect the cream of the crop,” said Ken Goldstein, a Conference Board economist.
He said that when given the choice between a job in Frankfort, Germany, and Chicago, more often than not, someone looking for a job in a foreign country would choose the job in Chicago.
The economist also said that the U.S. has a big advantage in that it’s always been more immigrant-friendly than Europe. And the European job market isn’t as tight as ours, so U.S. employers can fill jobs more quickly.
Goldstein predicted that even if the blue card spurred an exodus of highly skilled workers to the EU, the U.S. likely wouldn’t make changes to or speed up the green card process because of the debate over immigration in the country.
George T. Haley, director of the Center for International Industry Competitiveness at Connecticut’s University of New Haven said he thinks the U.S. work force will remain unchanged if the blue card is passed.
“The blue card alone will have a limited effect. The EU has to do something to try and draw skilled, younger workers, but the Europeans have significant attitudinal problems when it comes to attracting these workers and their family,” he said.
A recent United Kingdom measure that prevents doctors from emerging markets — including India — from completing their medical training in the U.K. exemplifies the EU’s unwillingness to welcome foreign-born workers, Haley said.
The blue card is sparking critics within the EU to raise questions and voice concerns about the proposal. Some fear that the attempt will encourage a brain-drain from less-fortunate nations, leaving those countries with an even smaller pool of skilled workers.
Some countries want their immigration policies left to their own jurisdiction — not the EU’s. That sentiment likely will prevent Britain, Ireland and Denmark from supporting the proposal, according to Time magazine. If they can’t block the measure, it is expected the countries will be able to opt out.
EU Commissioner Franco Frattini forecasts that rejection of the proposal will leave the EU with low- and medium-skilled workers. The blue card is necessary to reverse that trend, he said.
“Europe’s ability to attract highly skilled migrants is a measure of its international strength. We want Europe to become at least as attractive as favorite migration destinations such as Australia, Canada and the U.S.A.,” Franco said. “We have to make highly skilled workers change their perception of Europe’s labor market governed as they are by inconsistent admission procedures.”