STRASBOURG, France (AP) — European Union lawmakers Wednesday backed plans for an EU-wide work permit to attract skilled workers to offset labor shortages in the 27-nation bloc due to falling birth rates and demographic shifts.
A proposal to introduce an EU ''blue card'' — inspired by the U.S. green card — is to be presented by the European Commission on Oct. 23. It aims to attract engineers, IT specialists and other highly qualified workers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, who currently prefer Northern American and Australia over Europe.
Next year, the EU's executive arm also plans to propose guidelines to attract seasonal workers, essential for agriculture, construction and tourism. In 2009, the Commission is to streamline the transfers of third-country nationals within multinational companies based in more than one country so they would not have to seek multiple work and residence permits.
The European Parliament supported the proposals which could see the EU adopt a U.S.-style system of permanent work visas for migrants. It said in a resolution that the EU labor market is in need of legal immigrants since the bloc's working-age population will shrink by more than 50 million by 2050. But it called for the member states to remain in charge of setting their own quotas for economic migrants according to the countries' specific needs, and rejected imposed national quotas on the intake of job-seekers.
The EU has grappled with the issue of legal immigration since 1999 when the first set of draft guidelines was presented. But the plans for a 'positive' immigration policy, including an easier access for third-country nationals to the EU labor market, were shelved for several years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on U.S. targets.
EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini told the European Parliament the EU needs well-managed legal immigration because it needs to remain competitive with countries such as the United States or Canada.
''The idea is to introduce a European blue card so that highly skilled worker needed in a particular country will, after a period of time, be able to move to another EU country and will have the right to return to their country and come back to Europe again if they wish,'' Frattini said.
He said the EU executive would also discuss immigration of non-skilled laborers — the majority of immigrants into the EU — but was not yet ready to propose any legislation.
''There will be a debate, which will be open-ended,'' he said.
The EU argues there is an urgent need to boost the number of immigrants in Europe, warning that only a steady influx of newcomers will offset the impact of low birth rates and a graying population.
Germany has already tried to attract skilled high-tech workers due to shortages there, while Britain and the Netherlands have similarly tried to attract nurses and doctors from Africa and Asia.