Don’t forget the 95% – why Europe needs to seize opportunities of labour migration

Every year, millions move to the EU to find new job and a new life. The vast majority, around 95%, arrive via regular channels.

Sadly, Europe decided to focus on the remaining 5%, the irregular arrivals. Controlling our external borders and influencing the “root causes” of migration dominate both the public narrative and policymaking, while the opportunities of labour migration are sidelined and forgotten.

This approach needs to change. It needs to change, because there is much to gain from shifting the focus and narrative back to the opportunities. Migrants are already playing a crucial role in all European societies, working in all types of employment with very diverse skill levels.

The recent pandemic has shone a spotlight on their role within sectors identified as “essential”, such as healthcare and agriculture – even in times of high unemployment.

In the future, our dependence on workers who were not born here will only increase. It’s no secret that Europe is ageing. Demographics is sadly one of the most precise social sciences – and it does not look good for us.

The ageing society will result in huge skill shortages, hamper our productivity and, frankly, our economic relevance in the world. Over the next 30 years, our active workforce will decrease by almost 50 million.

If we want to have any chance of maintaining the ratio of active workforce compared to the elderly, we need migration. Otherwise, our current pension and health schemes will need either to change dramatically – or crumble.

So, we need migration. But we are by no means the only ones wanting to attract talent. Others are beating us to it. The US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and other high-income countries are constantly exploring ways to better attract talent at all skill levels – with the exception of a 4-year political hiatus in the US…

If united, the EU labour market could compete with other migration destinations, both in diversity and size. However, instead of leveraging this European benefit, Member States do their thing and compete against each other.

For all these reasons, investing in labour migration should not be a question of if, but how and how fast. For Europe, there are a couple of avenues to explore to answer these questions.

Every day, migrant workers struggle to get their experiences and education recognised. Evidencefrom Germany shows that facilitating this recognition could increase employment rates by 24% and raise hourly wages by 20% for migrant workers.

But even if Germany gets better at this, a transfer of recognition to another EU country is impossible. We give the potential migrant workers and our businesses a really hard time and make it almost impossible to relocate workforce to another country. The EU could massively benefit from easing and streamlining this process.

However, Europe would not have to wait passively to attract (and recognise…) talent. We could also actively invest in building skills abroad. Coordination with other countries, so called Talent Partnerships, could be expanded and train potential workers within high-demand sectors such as healthcare, construction, and IT. This would benefit the domestic markets and open up new channels for migration.

In addition, people should be able to register their interest to work within the EU, without having to know their future employer up front. By creating a one-stop-shop Talent Pool, the EU could pre-screen candidates’ qualifications, skills, and languages, match them to European employers, reduce bureaucracy, increase transparency, and create a more centralised legal migration framework.

For all this to work, migrant workers need to feel welcome here. But currently, we still curtail many of their rights, for example when it comes to free movement, working conditions, family reunification, access to education, healthcare, and other services.

We need to be better, and we need European legislation that tackles these disparities between people who are born here and those who come to contribute to our societies. We could, and should, go further.

By the end of this year, the European Commission will present a new “Talent and Skills” Package. This is a chance to re-orientate our approach to labour migration. Let’s not waste this opportunity to shift the narrative, to be bold, to go beyond the status quo.

Let’s for once focus on the 95%, on the positive contribution, the individual success stories, the lives that we could change, and the opportunities for Europe as a whole.