Scholz, A.: The EU Blue Card, 2008

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Questions on the impact of a “brain drain” from developing countries towards the European Union (EU) have been on the political agenda for a long time. Although, lately, the issue seems to have been neglected, it has been widely acknowledged that the emigration of a highly skilled work force from poor to richer industrialized countries does seriously harm the economies of the sending countries. This pattern of labour migration is promoted by increasing mobility due to globalisation processes. However, not only developing countries experience a loss of “brains” to more developed regions of the world. Europe is today concerned with the same phenomenon: Many member states face a loss of skilled professionals who prefer working in other industrialized, but more competitive countries like the United States or Canada.

“Brain drain” in its various forms is recognized as a process that causes economic drawbacks to the states migrants leave. The EU is currently experiencing both sides of the phenomenon. Given that professionals from third states come here for work, Europe is clearly a region of destination. In this context, the European Union has argued for development strategies meant to reduce the risk of “brain drain” and to promote sustainable growth of poorer countries. At the same time, researchers and other highly qualified persons leave Europe to work elsewhere. Due to this, but also due to other factors such as the demographic situation, an increasing need for foreign labour is becoming apparent in European societies. Acknowledging this growing dependency on a foreign labour force, the EU will have to adjust and reorganize its immigration schemes. Therefore, the European Commission has proposed the introduction of a “Blue Card”. This would provide temporary work permits for highly qualified migrants from third countries coming to the EU to work, with the perspective of permanent residence after a certain period of time.

When looking at the implications of such a new recruitment scheme, it seems that the Blue Card concept contradicts European development strategies that try to avoid “brain drain” effects. Can active recruitment and the promotion for development really go together?

A discrepancy between European economic needs and strategic considerations of poorer countries’ development has been detected. What does that imply for European (im)migration policies? Clearly, coherence of EU policies are at stake here. This makes it necessary to rethink certain aspects of European migration policies. Regarding the newly proposed approach to labour migration, the following questions arise: Would a more progressive immigration scheme such as the Blue Card lead to further “brain drain” from poorer countries to industrialized Europe? Would its introduction therefore contribute to harming the economic growth of outflow countries?

Analysing the implications of the concept, this paper will first look at the European “brain drain” debate and the member states’ way of dealing with this issue. Then, the regulations of the Blue Card will be explained in detail, enabling us to subsequently discuss its problematic aspects and potential effects on “brain drain”.

The "Brain Drain" debate in Europe

In Europe, discourse on “brain drain” used to be connected to matters of development. For a long time, the term has been internationally used to describe “the permanent emigration of highly skilled manpower from poor to rich countries” (Wolburg 2001: 23). Obviously, this phenomenon is closely related to the issue of migration. It has also gained importance by continuously shaping discourse about international labour migration.

Outlining the debate from its beginnings

Looking back to the beginning of the debate on “brain drain”, it was indeed mostly a subject referred to from a development perspective. By contrast, research on migration used to concentrate on the situation of the industrialized world and countries of destination. After the economic depression in the 1970s, labour migration policies in European societies became more restrictive. Discourse on migration started being characterised by ongoing concerns about European labour markets. Migration was generally understood as ‘im-migration’, perceived more or less as a threat, potentially increasing unemployment rates in host countries.

Research on development, though, underlined the destabilizing effects of migration experienced by sending countries. Emigration of educated professionals has been accounted for causing serious damage to their economies (for example Findlay 1993). In the last decade of the 20th century a change of scope regarding “brain drain” took place. Migration was reviewed in its procedural dimension with a stronger focus on its complexity. Due to this, the potential gains of migration for both sides of being involved in the process were emphasized. The idea that mobility of human capital implied positive effects for both sending and receiving countries was widely accepted.

Two explanations are given for this shift in the debate. The first one is the result of economic reasoning: It was acknowledged that European economies needed foreign labour due to internal demographic and structural changes. The emerging lack of labour opened up the discussion for new approaches on international migration. A second explanation derived from deliberations on development. The remittances sent home by migrants turned out to contribute significantly to the economic growth of the countries of origin (Thränhardt 2005). Migration issues started to be studied from a more positive point of view. However, this was predominantly due to the fact that previous attempts to restrain migration proved no longer to be appropriate. Closing up the frontiers was simply unfeasible in consideration of gobalisation effects. Given these changing circumstances and the increasing importance of remittances, “brain drain” arguments against migration seem to have lost prominence (Hunger 2003).

Currently, the European Union is attempting to integrate these new paradigms into migration policies. Although significant measures which would open up the Union for immigration are lacking, the will to avoid “brain drain” effects that are caused by active labour recruitment has been expressed frequently. Currently, several European initiatives are being developed to address these issues in a more sustainable way. The Hague Programme of 2005, promoting integration in the domain of justice and home affairs in the EU, introduced some new steps for a common European migration policy. This framework invited European institutions to draft a “Strategic plan on legal migration”. In this policy plan, which was presented in December 2005, the European Commission outlines its intention to cooperate with developing countries on the aspect of “brain drain”. The goal is, by monitoring the migration of skilled workers, “to identify sectors and countries of origin subject to significant brain drains, and to propose solutions that meet the needs of member states and the countries concerned”. Thus, the issue is addressed by connecting the two different contexts of development and economic migration, whereas before, the two domains were always studied independently from each other. Moreover, the guidelines accentuate the benefits for both sides, while simultaneously advocating the protection of weak economies.

The member states´approaches

The above mentioned joint approach tackling “brain drain” is officially pursued on the European level. However, the situation in the member states appears to be somewhat different. Although the impact on poor sending countries is known, European nation states individually continue to recruit the highly skilled if there is a need. Only a few states promote a discourse on “brain drain”, whereas some national policies fail to mention at all that highly qualified migrants leave countries behind that might need their knowledge desperately.

When it comes to the question of addressing the ambiguous output of immigration strategies, the United Kingdom seems to deal with it in a more progressive way than any other member state. Since 2002, British immigration policy has been overtly based on the will to actively reduce “brain drain”.4 The main actors in the national debate, the Home Office and the Department of International Development explicitely acknowledge its negative impact. Consequently, specific immigration schemes have been introduced by the British Government with the objective of protecting developing countries and to promote ethical recruitment standards. These schemes suggest so-called ‘codes of practice’, which, for instance, have been introduced for the British healthcare sector, banning recruitment from very poor countries. However, these codes are not mandatory and, in practice, recruitment agencies do not consistently abide by them.5 Still, the British approach seems promising since the actors involved are seeking to deal with the issue in the long term.

By contrast, in Germany, political discourse on immigration ignores the outflow countries’ situation and concentrates on consequences for the German economy. Only in a development context are the circumstances within these countries considered. Furthermore, many western societies are more and more often concerned about “brain drain” effects from their national states to other industrialized countries. This can also be observed in former emigration countries such as Spain, but also in Denmark, for example.

From this it can be concluded that national states – not only in Europe – first seek to establish an efficient immigration scheme corresponding to national (economic) requirements. Compatibility of national labour recruitment policies and economic needs of other countries are less discussed. Hence, growing demand for labour in Europe is clearly considered more important than development commitments.

Lately, the idea of circularity is gaining influence in international migration debates. Concepts favouring an ongoing exchange of migrant workers have become popular. “Brain circulation” and “brain exchange” should replace “brain drain”. The idea is to encourage temporary workers to return to their countries of origin by facilitating the re-entry into the EU. Thus, they would spend only a limited period of time in the host country. Not only would such a circular migration alleviate European labour shortages, whilst decreasing long-term immigration, the economic growth of developing countries would also be enhanced due to the return of experienced professionals.

But are these new concepts appropriate to satisfy the different requirements? After all, discourse on “brain drain” as a result of migration is of ambiguous scope. It helps to promote innovative approaches on the one hand, but is characterised by hypocritical elements on the other: Migration of human capital is encouraged by recruitment policies, even though damaging consequences for outflow countries have been declared undesirable. Such intentions notwithstanding, far-reaching measures to implement effective protection are still
lacking in practice.

The Blue Card

So far, legislation on labour market access for migrants has remained part of the member states’ sovereign responsibility. Harmonisation of policies on this issue at community level has been repeatedly refused. However, there are indicators suggesting that this might change in the future. The strategic policy plan on legal migration adopted in 2005, for instance, foresaw the elaboration of several initiatives on legal immigration by the European Commission. On 23 October 2007, a proposal for a directive ‘on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purposes of highly qualified employment’ was presented. Following the concept of the American “Green Card”, the controversial proposal, elaborated under the former Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Franco Frattini, has become known as the “Blue Card”. Having already been harshly critized by politicians as well as experts, the proposal will be on the European Parliament’s agenda in autumn 2008.

The proposed directive is aimed at managing legal labour migration to and within the EU. This should be achieved by harmonising national legislation on the access of third-state professionals to the European labour market.

Thus, the problem of labour shortages in the member states is confronted through a joint approach with the explicit objective to “enhance [EU’s] competitiveness”. After all, the adoption of this framework directive, constituting the first of four directives on legal migration, could lead to an opening of national labour markets to temporary migrants from outside the EU.

As already mentioned, the Blue Card seeks to encourage circular migration by providing a work permit to foreign professionals with a limited time span: it is valid for two years and can be extended to another two years. After five years of residence within the EU, a Blue Card holder can apply for a long-term residence permit. There are several requirements applicants have to fulfil. Despite these prerequisites, the member states maintain sovereignty when it finally comes to admission: national governments can establish admission quotas which allow the refusal of applicants due to estimated national labour market requirements. Only after two years, Blue Card holders obtain the right to free mobility to travel within the EU. But only holders of a long-term work permit, which can be obtained after five years, must not be refused work by any member state. Another important element concerns family reunification. Blue Card holders’ family members are to be accepted in the EU after six months at the latest and are immediately allowed to work.

In summary, the initiative of a “Blue Card” is an attempt to harmonise access conditions for legal migrants. The Commission argues that only by opening up labour markets will European economies be able to cope with labour shortages. The intention is also to improve the governance of migration flows into the EU. All together, the attractiveness of the European Union for highly skilled third-nationals should be improved.

The Blue Card: Tackling or enhancing "Brain Drain" effects?

Given its mobility scheme, the EU Blue Card constitutes a framework that is expected to promote circularity as the desirable pattern of labour migration. The proposal of the directive explicitly “aims to encourage the geographic mobility of highly qualified workers” and seeks to create mechanisms to “sustain the circular migration policy”. The need to strengthen the migrant’s mobility is stressed in order to foster return movements to the country of origin. Given the emphasis that is put on temporary arrangements, what are the implications of the directive in terms of “brain drain” effects? Would a Blue Card contribute to the negative impact on developing countries, which the loss of human capital declaredly has? Or does it rather comprise potential “brain gains” for both host and outflow states?

Sustaining circularity effectively implies that the Blue Card concept as such is conceived to tackle the “brain drain” that is caused by industrialized states’ labour recruitment. As a matter of fact, the Commission states in the proposal that “member states should refrain from pursuing active recruitment in developing countries in sectors suffering from lack of human resources”. Thus, poor countries already experiencing serious “brain drain” should be identified and, consequently, they should not be included/incorporated in recruitment processes. “Ethical recruitment" shall be guaranteed. In this context, the healthcare sector, being already affected by labour shortages in some countries, is mentioned. As to regional specifications, Sub-Saharan Africa is identified as an area prone to “brain drain”. Hence, what has to be expected in terms of potential consequences if the Blue Card is introduced accordingly?

The main feature aimed at fostering circular migration consists of facilitating the reentry of migrants to the EU that were Blue Card holders before. The objective is to encourage them to leave Europe to return to the third state they came from by increasing the chance of re-accession. However, the extent of this measure has not been specified.

The perspective to obtain a long-term residence permit after five years of stay is another issue. This may be perceived by many highly skilled immigrants as an attractive opportunity. It may be possible that many of them would then prefer to settle within the European Union instead of returning. Furthermore, family reunification should be achievable within the relatively short period of six months. This prospect presumably encourages workers to make their families follow them to Europe. Thus, returning may become less attractive. A real “brain gain” for the sending country therefore seems disputable (Kancs/Ciaian 2007:52). Moreover, it is not clear which indicators and measures would be used to identify “brain drain” effects and to prevent single countries or sectors from an extensive loss of work force.

Essential to the evaluation is that, although the proposal addresses the problem, it is first of all a concept to tackle European labour market shortages. Recruitment will be “demand-driven”, satisfying labour market demands in the member states is crucial. Development of sending countries comes second – even though it would be considered positively.


These deliberations suggest that a certain risk of “brain drain” effects induced by an immigration scheme such as the Blue Card cannot be completely ruled out. There are high incentives for qualified workers to emigrate and work in one of the EU member states. It will depend on the extent and on the circumstances of the ‘ethical recruitment standards’ whether developing countries will be able to gain from it. After all, the will has been expressed to anticipate “one-way streets” of labour migration.

In this context, the European Union has been critised for a lack of policy coherence (i.e. Thränhardt 2005). Migration policies can obviously no longer be developed without considering questions of development and vice-versa. For a consistent, comprehensive and sustainable approach to migration, increasing interaction and exchange in the policy-making process on immigration and development appear highly desirable.

However, developing countries are also required to take action. They are too often prone to contribute to the “brain drain” by not engaging in necessary measures to integrate the highly qualified. Many governments voluntarily send human capital to richer countries without considering the long-term consequences for their domestic economies. Awareness of these problems should be raised in the industrialized world and the countries of origins alike.


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