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EU Commission unveils plans to boost legal migration

The European Commission on Wednesday proposed a new package of measures to strengthen the bloc’s approach to legal migration, after some 5 million Ukrainian refugees have entered the EU since the Russian invasion.

The aim is not only to provide simpler, legal pathways for migrants and reduce illegal migration but also to address labor shortages, especially in sectors such as healthcare. As for the Ukrainians who have come to the EU, and to whom the bloc has temporarily provided full rights, the Commission proposal includes a pilot project just for them.

On average “between two-and-a-half to three million legal migrants every year [arrive in] the European Union … compared with 150,000-200,000 that arrive irregularly,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said while presenting the package at a press conference. “And we need them,” she added, because of labor shortages in many sectors. For example, according to the Commission, in the long-term care sector, there are expected to be up to 7 million job openings for healthcare professionals and care workers by 2030. 

The proposal aims to reform two pieces of existing legislation: The first change relates to the single permit that allows migrants to work and obtain residence. The process for getting this permit will be streamlined and shortened, the Commission said, as time delays can deter employers from international recruitment. 

The second reform is for the long-term residence directive. So far, this has been underused and the new proposal would allow non-EU nationals to accumulate residence periods in different member states in order to meet the 5-year residence criteria needed to stay in the long term, as well as improving the right to family reunification.

The Commission plan also includes setting up a so-called EU Talent Pool, an EU-wide platform to match employers with people who have the skills they are unable to find in the local labor market.

It also envisages a pilot scheme of the EU Talent Pool just for Ukrainians. There are also plans to launch “talent partnerships” with non-EU countries to improve access to work and training, in a bid to prevent smuggling and also to improve cooperation with countries on returns and readmissions of those who arrived illegally. The first such partnerships are planned with North African countries, in particular Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, by the end of the year.

Legal migration is a shared competence between the EU and member states. The latest package of measures is part of a reform of asylum rules across the EU that the Commission presented in September 2020 — the so-called Migration Pact — but that has not been agreed amid deep divisions among member states. However, Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who was also on the podium Wednesday, said this package does “not necessarily” have to be adopted at the same time as the other proposals on the table.

Humanitarian organizations, employers associations and many political parties and figures on the left and center right welcomed the proposal. But at the same time, “we do not expect this legal migration package to be the silver bullet that will address irregular migration overall,” said Jeroen Lenaers, an MEP from the conservative European People’s Party, who also told POLITICO he liked many ideas in the package.

“Our best chance for a durable solution is the migration pact is already in the hands of the co-legislators, and is where we expect progress from the member states,” he said.

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