European Union justice and interior ministers on Thursday opened day-long talks with the focus on plans to open up new ways for legal migration into the 27-member bloc.
The proposals are part of an EU drive to fight illegal immigration and combat labour shortages in Europe.
But plans to boost jobs for legal migrants to the EU are likely to be blocked by its 10 central and eastern European members, which are facing work barriers against their citizens.
However, Luxembourg’s minister for foreign affairs and immigration Nicolas Schmit said that the issues of legal migration from non-EU countries and the free movement of workers inside the bloc were not directly linked to each other.
‘It’s impossible not to open up to circular migration (from countries outside the EU),’ Schmit told reporters when arriving at the meeting.
The European Commission is working on a scheme to encourage so-called ‘circular immigration’ under which immigrants from Africa would work in the EU only for a restricted period of time.
The idea is to match job offers in the EU with potential migrants in sectors such as agriculture, building and cleaning.
EU employment agencies will be set up in African countries. The first ‘job centre’ is expected to open in Mali at the end of this year, with others planned for Senegal and Mauritania.
The commission has said that agreements for temporary workers would be based on labour market needs in the EU states. The deals would also include readmission accords with countries of origin.
The EU executive is also mulling over a European version of the United States ‘green card’ and over sanctions for companies who hire illegal immigrants.
EU officials have also said that the bloc must first and foremost try and attract particularly well-trained migrants to compensate for Europe’s falling birth rates and an ageing population.
The move towards legal migration is also seen as a way to curb the influx of illegal immigrants into the bloc. About half a million illegal immigrants enter the EU each year.
The issue has climbed to the top of the EU agenda after southern European nations, in particular Spain and Italy, saw mass arrivals of illegal immigrants on their coasts last year.
EU ministers will also be asked to strengthen the bloc’s border watchdog Frontex by boosting its funding, resources and powers.
Protecting the bloc’s external borders and combatting illegal immigration will remain the EU’s top priority, they said last month.
Ministers will also discuss German plans aimed at combatting racism and xenophobia, which include rules to make denying the Holocaust a crime.
Germany currently holds the rotating EU presidency.