Germany questions merits of EU "Blue Card" proposal

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European Union government ministers broadly agreed on the need to attract skilled foreigners but clashed over details, with Germany expressing strong reservations over a planned EU-wide "Blue Card."

7 December 2007

Brussels (dpa) - European Union government ministers broadly agreed on the need to attract skilled foreigners but clashed over details, with Germany expressing strong reservations over a planned EU-wide "Blue Card."

For the first time, justice and home affairs ministers were given the opportunity to discuss immigration together with their employment and social policy colleagues.

Portugal, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the so-called "jumbo council" aimed to produce a wide-ranging debate on this most sensitive of issues.

According to EU Commission Vice-President Franco Frattini, ministers expressed "broad consensus" on the benefits of granting work and residency permits to third-country professionals, in order to make up for labour shortages and to compensate for Europe's ageing population.

And government officials also agreed with the EU executive on the need to crack down on undeclared workers, many of them exploited illegal immigrants.

But they also stressed different priorities and expressed diverging views on the issue.

Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece, for instance, emphasized the need to stop thousands of migrants from entering their territories illegally each year from North Africa and Asia. While new member states the Czech Republic and Bulgaria said their workers should be given priority.

And German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, whose country commands the EU's largest economy, implicitly criticized Frattini's plans for a Blue Card by insisting that immigration should remain a competence of individual member states.

Frattini has proposed making the EU more attractive to third- country professionals by offering them similar benefits to those currently enjoyed by their European colleagues.

Candidates would be able to apply for a single work and residency permit, valid for a minimum of two years and renewable, and accepted throughout the union. Under the proposal, foreign white-collar workers would also be allowed to be joined by their families in their new country of residency.

Germany's main concern is that the EU might eventually set quotas on the number of immigrants who can enter individual member states, an eventuality strongly denied by Frattini.

"It is not up to Brussels to decide how many engineers from third countries are necessary for Germany or Austria," Frattini said.

"Germany is against running the risk that volumes (of immigrants) may one day be determined at EU level. That is not the idea of the Commission," Frattini added.

Observers in Brussels said Germany could eventually decide not to adopt the Blue Card, rather than block the project altogether.

The Netherlands also expressed reservations over the proposal while Austria called for further "clarifications" in the field of social security and minimum wages.

Austria argues that under Frattini's proposal, the minimum annual salary that its country would grant to foreign professionals would be below what it currently offers -- 32,000 euros ($47,100). The Commission retorts that individual governments would be allowed to offer higher salaries, if they so wished.

Britain, which has opted out of EU immigration policies altogether, outlined to ministers its alternative plan for a points- based system. Devised along the lines of a similar system in place in Australia, it aims to ensure that only those migrants meeting the needs of the country would be allowed to enter and work.

The British proposal nevertheless reflects an EU-wide shift toward a "pick and choose" approach to migration that is likely to adversely affect the future of lower-skilled third-country nationals seeking a better life in Europe.

Some 2 million third-country nationals enter the bloc each year, according to EU estimates, and there is little evidence to suggest this figure will drop significantly in the foreseeable future.

But while there is general agreement that more immigrants are needed, the at times poorly managed inflow has fuelled growing resentment among ordinary citizens, opposition from nationalist parties and calls for stricter controls by government officials.

Ministers attending "jumbo council" in Brussels also endorsed Thursday a decision to allow nine new EU member states to join its free-movement Schengen area as from Dec. 21.

Airport checks in the Czech Republic, Malta, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia are to remain in place until March 30, 2008.

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