The European Parliament has voted to approve reforms to the EU's Blue Card Directive, designed to facilitate the employment of highly skilled workers from outside the bloc and help plug the gap where labour shortages exist in certain sectors.
In what will be the only changes to EU migration law in recent years, MEPs voted 556 in favour of the revisions, 105 against and 31 abstained.
Brussels wants to make it easier to attract highly skilled non-EU workers in sectors like healthcare and information and communication technologies (ICT) where significant shortfalls exist.
Speaking after the vote on Wednesday, the MEP in charge of the Blue Card Directive Javier Moreno Sánchez, said: "We must do everything we can to improve legal migration to Europe and, above all, facilitate the arrival of qualified workers who contribute to the development of our continent."
"A more attractive and viable scheme adds real value to the existing national schemes. In the future, we intend to go further, so that workers in medium and low-paid jobs can contribute to our society in the same beneficial way that Blue Card holders can now," the Spanish parliamentarian added.
For Martin Jefflén, President of Eurocadres - a Brussels based trade union representing up to six million employees - the ICT sector is in particular need of attracting non-EU workers.
"The one [sector] that has been pointed to a lot in the process is, of course, tech, and that is also the one we mentioned specifically in the directive with some special rights related to that sector," Jefflén told Euronews. "But I would say that this is a cross sectoral issue. We need better access for highly skilled professionals, regardless of the sector."
The Blue Card is a work and residence permit originally introduced in 2009, which allows highly qualified non-EU nationals to take up job offers from European employers.
One of the main reasons for updating the blue card scheme is the bloc's declining working-age population.
According to the European Commission, it is predicted to drop from 333 million in 2016 to 292 million by 2070.
European politicians hope to address this shrinking labour force, in part, by beefing up the blue card directive.
Some of the changes include a lower threshold for the minimum salary that applicants must earn in order to qualify, the ability to move within the EU for new jobs after 12 months of work and giving family members the opportunity to join Blue Card holders and also look for work.
By lowering the criteria for admission and strengthening the rights of Blue Card holders and their families, MEPs hope to increase the attractiveness of the scheme.
But Jo Antoons a Belgian lawyer at Fragomen Global LLP, who specialises in helping non-EU workers get Blue Cards, says the best way to attract talent would be for member states to work together on the issue.
"The most important thing is that we are able in Europe to profile ourselves as the destination of choice of talent so that we compete with other regions in the world and see that the talent, the best possible talent from abroad comes to Europe. And that can only be achieved if we look at Europe as a whole and not as individual member states," Antoons told Euronews.
"So in my opinion, how to encourage EU countries to use the Blue Card is to say, 'Hey, if we use the EU Blue Card, we will be able to have top talent in Europe and having them in Europe, meaning travelling around.' And because they will not stick to one single country in Europe, whether it's for professional purposes or for private in their private lives, then that can only be a good thing."
For Maxime Cerutti, the social director of Business Europe, the reforms are welcome, but a more comprehensive initiative is needed to continue attracting highly skilled non-EU workers.
"I think it's a good reform, but of course, it's only one piece of legislation," Cerutti told Euronews. "And now, I think there is a need for a comprehensive initiative to improve economic migration from third countries to Europe. And in order to achieve this, I think this idea of a talent pool is very promising. So it will be for the next months, but there will be eager to contribute business because I think that there is really a lot that can be achieved through a talent pool."
"It is a lot about coordinating member states because the member states should be the ones deciding on the numbers of people that they are ready to welcome in their societies. But on the other hand, there is a clear need to have more people coming from outside Europe and to combine it with the labour market situation of our countries. And if we manage to do that better to better combine employment policy and migration policy in the future, I think it would be very beneficial to our societies."
European Commission data shows that France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland together issued 75 % of all permits recorded in 2019.
The next step is for the European Council to rubber-stamp the legislation. Member states will then have a two-year period to adapt their national legislation to bring it in line with the directive.