European Law Monitor

Make your voice heard!

European Law Monitor newsParliament adopts priorities on legal and illegal immigration policies

MEPs debated and voted today on two own-initiative reports relating to a policy plan for legal migration and the priorities in the fight against illegal immigration. The Chamber opened the door to the possibility of establishing an EU work permit for highly skilled workers (the so-called blue card) and defended that illegal immigration cannot be countered unless means and channels of legal immigration are established at the same time.

The own-initiative report, aimed to elaborate a plan on legal migration, "supports the creation of an EU work permit" -Known as the blue card, similar idea to the current US green card- "to facilitate the free movement of 'brains' within Europe and the transfer of personnel within multinational companies".   MEPs also ask to bring forward a study on the possible implementation of the blue-card system but reminded that defining the specific needs and quotas for economic migrants remains a Member State competence. EC Vice-president Franco   Frattini will present Commission's legislative proposal on the blue-card system next 23 October.
Europe needs economic migrants, stressed MEPs. "the reality of ageing and demographic changes necessitate rethinking immigration policies since the current and future situations of the EU labour markets can be broadly described as in demand of well-managed legal immigration". The text adopted supports the intention of the Commission to define the conditions of entry and stay for other selected categories of economic immigrants, including unskilled or low-skilled workers.
MEPs also emphasise the particular responsibility of the media (in particular European public radio and television broadcasters) in the dissemination of an accurate image of immigration and in countering stereotypes. "Spreading the belief that immigration is uncontrolled is wrong", said MEPs and Europe should avoid the danger of exploiting   the debate on migration "for demagogic and populist purposes".
The report, drafted by Lilli Gruber (PES, IT), finally states that the number of third-country nationals legally resident in the 27 EU Member States is approximately 18.5 million (whilst nearly 9 million EU citizens are resident in a Member State other than their own), according to Eurostat.

Fight against illegal immigration

Javier Moreno Sánchez (PES, ES) presented the second own initiative report on policy priorities in the fight against illegal immigration.   The report adopted today stresses that irregular migrants must not be treated like criminals and reiterates its firm opposition to the idea of setting up reception or holding centres for illegal immigrants or asylum seekers outside the Union's borders and in immigrants' regions of origin.

The regularisation issue

The report recalls that numerous Member States have carried out regularisations or said they will do so, and that these decisions are, in the present state of law, a matter for the discretion of the Member States "but quite often a signal of lack of appropriate measures in place". MEPs believe that en masse regularisation of illegal immigrants "should be a one-off event since such a measure does not resolve the real underlying problem"


The report deeply regrets the fact that some Member States have failed to honour their undertakings to provide logistic and human support for its operations.   MEPs consider that, in the face of the migratory flow from the African continent towards Europe, Southern Member States on the external frontiers of the Union, notably smaller Member States, such as Malta and Cyprus, are currently shouldered with a disproportionate burden which calls for the strengthening of measures for the joint management of the Union´s external borders.
The number of third-country nationals in an irregular situation in the EU appears to be, according to somewhat conflicting estimates, between 4.5 m and 8 m. Parliament will adopt in the coming months two important directive proposals: a first one to give common rules for the return of illegal immigrants and a second one to impose sanctions on employers of illegal immigrants, stepping up workplace inspections.

Debate - 26 September 2007

Parliament debated the EU's policies on immigration, with MEPs voting on two reports on legal migration and illegal immigration.   The principle of respect of human dignity was underlined throughout the debate.   Many speakers recalled the tragic images of migrants being drowned in the Mediterranean, with others calling for the EU's external border force,   Frontex, to be strengthened.   The idea of an EU blue-card similar to the US green-card needed to be further developed, said MEPs.

Speaking for the Council Presidency, Manuel LOBO ANTUNES stressed that the Council has been adapting the "global approach" on legal and illegal migration adopted in December 2006 to keep pace with developments, including events on the EU's southern maritime borders. For example, at the June 2007 Council this approach was expanded to strengthen relations with neighbouring and third countries in order to fight illegal migration, and to develop opportunities for legal migration.

Frontex is working

Mr Lobo Antunes reiterated the importance of the Frontex border security agency, and stressed that new work done in line with Malta's suggestions since June includes urgent measures to strengthen existing arrangements, such as bilateral support for Member States under exceptional migration pressure and co-operation with third countries, to include return measures. But third countries must also "shoulder their own responsibilities for search and rescue" and "building an effective framework for return" of illegal migrants, he said.
Since October 2006 Frontex has developed measures to police the EU's external borders better, including establishing a European coastal patrols network and various joint operations in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It is now implementing the regulation on temporary aid to Member States under exceptional pressure (which entered into force on 20 August), but, stressed Mr Lobo Antunes, the availability of technical equipment from the "CRATE" list is crucial to this aid.

Illegal employment

The Council services are now analysing a proposed directive, tabled by the Commission in May 2007, to combat illegal employment of migrants, he said.

Legal migration

The Council is also considering a proposed single residence permit for legal migrants, and also, as a follow-up to the action plan on legal migration, at a specific work permit to facilitate the free movement of highly-skilled workers, he added.

External relations

Finally, the Council is looking at ways to build balanced partnerships with third countries, so as to facilitate temporary "circular" migration, he said.
Commission Vice-President Franco FRATTINI who is responsible for justice, freedom and security, stressed that a global approach was needed to migration, above all because of the underlying causes such as poverty that pushed people to emigrate. "A security-driven approach", with patrolling of the high seas, could only be part of the solution.
Speaking about legal immigration, he said the EU needed migrants, not just because of its falling population but to make its economy more competitive.   He added that free migration within the EU itself was not yet a reality but, on the demographic issue, believed more should be done to encourage people to have children.
Among practical measures, Mr Frattini spoke of the proposed blue card for migrants, which would encourage "circular migration". This could be an answer to Europe's need for highly-skilled workers while not exacerbating the brain drain from poorer countries. Legislation on common rights for economic migrants, with a single work and residence permit in one document, was another measure on the table.   In addition, in 2008 the Commission would put forward proposals on seasonal workers and making cross-border movement easier for migrants working in a company with branches in different EU countries.
Lastly, while stressing that illegal migration must not be tolerated, the Commissioner lauded the role of Frontex in saving 1200 people from the sea over the summer but concluded by warning that Europe would need to work on immigration issues for many years to come.

Rapporteur - legal migration

Lilli GRUBER (PES, IT) told the House that immigration must not be seen as an "emergency", that it had causes, such as war and poverty, and that the EU must come up with the right policies to deal with it.   At all events "our economies would not work" without immigrants.   She welcomed the directive on the rights and obligations of migrants but wanted it to come under the co-decision procedure (giving Parliament a greater say), without a veto in Council.
She stressed the need for reliable statistics on migration and urged greater responsibility in this area on the part of politicians and the media.   She also expressed cautious interest in the mooted blue card for skilled migrants but pointed out that the majority of immigrants were unskilled and said a directive was needed on this category too.

Rapporteur - illegal immigration

Javier MORENO SÁNCHEZ (PES, ES) argued that, while immigration was necessary, illegal immigration must be firmly combated. Secure frontiers were important but he stressed that Frontex was proving effective, although the Member States must ensure it had adequate resources.
A standard European policy on returning migrants was needed, involving readmission agreements with third countries. The question of political will was crucial to dealing with employers of illegal migrant labour and he called for zero tolerance of illegal employment.   Lastly, Mr Moreno Sánchez underlined the link between migration and development, saying that migrants must not be regarded as criminals.

Political group speakers

Speaking for the EPP-ED group, Joseph DAUL (FR) said that immigration was a special topic.   "We all think of the people that have lost our lives off the coast of Europe", he said.   The safeguarding of life, the respect for human dignity, and a solid legal framework should be the principles underlying immigration policy.   On illegal immigration, Mr Daul said that Frontex rapid reaction teams needed to be boosted with extra financial resources, but ultimately the Member States were the guardians of the EU's borders. There were, he said, approximately 10-15 million illegal immigrants in the EU and they needed to be addressed with the principle of the respect of human dignity.   Mass regularisation however was not the answer as this only led to support for mafia and people traffickers.
Claudio FAVA (PES, IT) recalled the images of forty migrants clinging to a fishing net in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe which underlined the need for a global approach to immigration and the powerful pull of Europe.   Mr Fava said that Europe's fisherman were most interested in saving the fish than the people.   The easiest way to step illegal immigration, he said, was to open up channels for legal migration.   Mr Fava also underlined the importance of sharing and solidarity between the Member States.   He also stressed the importance of respecting human rights and dignity.
Graham WATSON (ALDE, UK) said: "With every human tragedy, during a desperate do nothing decade, liberals and democrats have asked one simple question: how many people must perish before governments see that lifting the drawbridge of fortress Europe serves nobody´s interests? Managing migration is as much in our interests as in the interests of those seeking our shores or prepared to die trying. While populism has propelled a policy forged in the furnace of fear, let us face the facts.
Of course we must patrol Europe´s borders. The report by Javier MORENO SÁNCHEZ (PES, ES) [on illegal immigration] is right to demand that Frontex be given the budget, the staff and the equipment needed to do its job • although suspending Gibraltar from Frontex, equivalent to leaving a hole in the wire, frankly beggars belief. Longer term, however, only a comprehensive EU policy, which punishes the people-smugglers, provides legal routes in and creates hope where there is despair, can counter prevailing trends. Migration will not go away: it is driven by the heady cocktail of despair and hope; it follows the law of supply and demand, but it has the capacity if properly managed to enrich and energise Europe."
In the context of illegal immigration, Cristiana MUSCARDINI (UEN, IT) referred to the 'urgent need for a common policy'.   She did accept that Frontex already existed but pointed out that 'you cannot have Frontex on a shoestring' - financial resources were necessary.   Mrs Muscardini emphasised that the work of Frontex should not just be about border posts, but also about human trafficking and the defence of human dignity.   She concluded by calling for common rules on asylum.
Jean LAMBERT (Greens/EFA, UK) began by stating that "we know that immigration is a fact of life".   She pointed out that EU nationals themselves follow paths where they want to "yearn for" and "earn" a better life.   She called for 'greater honesty from Member States about the need for migrant workers' in their current economies and urged Members 'not to shed crocodile tears' for immigrants while voting for trade policies that do not allow for potential improvement in the situation.   Mrs Lambert stated that EQUAL has given us 'some fantastic examples' of ways of dealing with the questions of employment and equality for all.   She concluded by pointing out that it is "not just a question of free movement but also a question of tackling racism and xenophobia".
Giusto CATANIA (GUE/NGL, IT) commented on EU policies to date, referring to 'pushing people back' and criminalising migration.   He pointed out that 'we should agree that the policy for illegal immigration should be to stop people being attracted by our economies' and to 'stop the Mediterranean turning into a graveyard'.   Mr Catania referred to the need to 'deal with the demographic challenge', in particular based on recent statistics that EU Member States will need 20m migrants by 2030.   He called for an assessment of 'what these return policies actually mean', referring to people being held for several months.   He concluded by stating that 'I don't think we can say that we are happy with [Frontex's] policies'.
Roger KNAPMAN (UK) speaking for the Independence/Democracy Group, contrasted the EU's tendency to "centralise" immigration policy with Switzerland's tendency to devolve it down to the cantons. The Swiss federal government and the cantons together decide an immigration quota each year, but have rejected the idea of a central agency. Switzerland focuses on integrating migrants (every canton has an integration office) and dispersing them across its territory. This system works because it meets local needs, said Mr Knapman, whereas in the UK, "immigration policy is moving away from the fount of local knowledge".
Figures from the EURODAC database on asylum-seekers suggested that illegal border crossings had grown by over 60% since 2005, said Marine LE PEN (ITS, FR). Mass "regularisation" is "neither an end in itself, nor a panacea", she continued, a lesson that Spain, Belgium and France had learned by trying it, and thus turning themselves into "magnets" for immigration. Instead, the EU should "re-establish border controls", as Frontex is a mere "gadget", and the Schengen agreement is "criminal", she concluded.
Removing illegal immigration is the only viable way to ensure safety of life and limb, said Alessandro BATTILOCCHIO (IT), for the non-attached members. The priorities should be decent reception centres, to inform incomers of their rights, the social integration of migrants, and cracking down on smugglers. Frontex has a modest budget, but sets an example that brings solace to Member States under pressure, he concluded.

British speakers

Jim ALLISTER (NI, UK) said that the ability of a nation state to control its own borders and change its immigration policy as required is a tangible demonstration of sovereignty.
Continuing he stated that "the fact that the United Kingdom cannot now rectify the grave miscalculation which it made in 2004, with its open-door policy to Eastern Europe, is a telling indication of just how much sovereignty we in the United Kingdom have conceded to belong to this club. I say ´grave miscalculation´ because, instead of the 13,000 predicted immigrant workers, we have had 750,000, with the related massive drain on our welfare system of millions per annum in child benefit and tax credits for children who do not even live in the United Kingdom but qualify because their fathers work there. Because of the rules of the EU, we are powerless to do anything about it, and yet some would have us concede even more powers to Brussels. How foolish we would be to do so."
Philip BRADBOURN (EPP-ED, UK) stated that the topic under discussion is undoubtedly one of the utmost importance to Europe and one where each Member State faces different challenges. For this very reason, he said, whether we are dealing with illegal or legal migration, we must not go down the path of a one-size-fits-all approach. Migration matters must remain a sovereign right of each Member State.
However, Mr Bradbourn stated that he is in favour of greater cooperation between Member States where common ground can be identified and where it can work for the benefit of all. And, like other speakers, he would particularly like to focus the House´s attention on the Frontex system, where recently a further €12m was released to this organisation.
From the outset, Mr Bradbourn stated that the system has suffered as a result of Member States who have pledged resources but who are not honouring their commitments. If this project is going to be a success, he said, we must ensure that these promised resources are made available to the operation as and when needed.
Continuing, he stated that this is only one tool in the struggle to stop illegal immigration. "We must look at new and innovative solutions at the very source where migrants start their journey. We need to look at targeted campaigns in the states of origin, making it clear that Europe is not an open door. Most of all, we must also target people traffickers. The other side of this coin means our Member States having effective repatriation policies to deter those who both seek and organise illegal migration."
Concluding, Mr Bradbourn stated that cooperation, not regulation, is needed between Member States. "A one-size-fits-all approach cannot solve the problems of immigration and we must not fall into the trap of thinking that more Europe is the solution."

Response to the debate from the Council

Summing up for the Council Presidency, Mr Lobo Antunes stressed that the EU's immigration strategy is on the "right track". It combines humanity and solidarity: humanity, because it is directed to people seeking a place in our societies, and solidarity, because immigration is not an issue for one, two or three Member States - it needs a response from all.
Frontex is clearly useful, and we need to provide it with the necessary tools, he continued. Dialogue with third countries should also be stepped up, because immigration problems will be solved only by addressing their causes. It is to be hoped that the coming EU-Africa summit will produce progress here, he concluded.

Response by Commissioner Frattini

Replying to the debate, Commissioner Frattini agreed with MEPs who had emphasised the importance of aid and trade policy with Africa as an integral part of the EU's approach to migration.   On the protection of external frontiers, he said Frontex must be supported - it had not just saved lives but also arrested around 400 people traffickers - and he urged Parliament to resist proposed cuts to Frontex's funding when it votes on the 2008 budget.
On the question of Member States's rights, he said that even with the proposed EU work permit each Member State would remain free to decide how many non-EU workers it wished to admit. By contrast, he believed EU-wide rules were needed to combat illegal migration.  
Lastly, the Commissioner spoke about integration.   Each side must respect the culture of the other, and this would include, for example, a rejection of polygamy and forced marriage in Europe and a requirement for immigrants to learn the language of their host country. He wished to see a balance between rights and duties, recognised by parties that were equal.