Seeking to tackle illegal immigration and to fill labour shortages in Europe, the European Commission on Wednesday said that it wants to open up new ways for legal migration into the bloc.
“The EU needs legal immigration, the number of people living here is set to decline,” said EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini.
However, foreigners would only be given temporary access to fill gaps on the EU’s national labour markets.
Under new commission plans, EU states should give a multi-annual work permit to migrants which would allow them to come back several years in a row to perform seasonal jobs in the bloc.
So-called circular migration could help Europe meet its growing need for well-trained workers due to an ageing population and the challenges of globalization, the commissioner argued.
“We must make the EU an attractive destination for people to work,” Frattini said.
But the EU needed in particular seasonal workers for the areas of agriculture, construction and tourism, he said.
The commission’s blueprint also includes so-called “job centres” to be set up in African countries to match temporary job offers in the EU with potential migrants.
Agreements for temporary workers would include readmission accords with countries of origin. Commission officials have also said that in order to ensure that people go back home, part of their salary would be paid when they leave Europe.
The EU executive is currently trying to get a mandate from member states to negotiate migration deals with African countries and its eastern neighbours.
EU governments have been asked to decide how many workers they need and in which sectors of their labour markets they want to fill vacancies.
Frattini said that plans for attracting highly-skilled workers would be presented in September.
EU officials insist that the bloc must first and foremost try and attract particularly well-trained migrants to compensate for Europe’s falling birth rates and ageing population.
Statistics show that, given low birth rates and an ageing population, Europe will lose 20 million workers by 2050.
The EU’s move towards legal migration is also seen as a way to curb the influx of illegal immigrants into the bloc and to convince member states to cede power on migration issues to the EU executive.
“Being tough here means we can offer legal alternatives to illegal migration, without undermining the credibility of Europe’s migration policy,” Frattini said.
About half a million illegal immigrants enter the EU each year, mainly from poor African countries.
The bloc has responded by stepping up border controls, with so-called “frontline” states, Spain, Italy and Malta, demanding even tougher measures against the illegals.
The EU executive also said that it wanted to boost measures aimed at curbing illegal immigration and human trafficking from eastern and south-eastern states neighbouring the 27-member bloc.
Frattini singled out countries in the Black Sea region as a transit point for trafficking in human beings.
EU migration policies must also include countries of origin and transit in the Middle East and Asia, the commission said.
In a separate move, the EU executive proposed tough sanctions for employers of illegal migrants, including heavy fines and prison sentences for the worst offenders.
“The near certainty of finding illegal work in EU member states is the main driving force behind illegal immigration,” Frattini said, adding that illicit work would also distort competition in the EU.
Member states should introduce heavy fines and set jail sentences for the most serious cases of illegal employment, including repeated offenders and companies employing more than four illegal migrants.
Other sanctions could see illegal employers losing public funds or face the closing down of their companies.
The commission also called on member states to increase from 2 per cent to 10 per cent the number of companies that they inspect each year for illegal employment.
Rules in 19 of the 27 EU countries provide for criminal sanctions against illicit work. But Frattini called for EU-wide penalties, accusing member states of being too lax in implementing the laws.
As much as 16 per cent of business in the EU is done off the books, according to the commission. Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to be doing illicit jobs across Europe.
But the commission’s plan could run into fierce opposition from some member states as the EU does not have the competence to interfere with matters of criminal law.