The EU’s migration agenda - what about legal migration pathways?

Legal migration is often noted as one of the ways to counter smuggling and irregular migration. With the European Commission’s recent political roadmap for a sustainable migration policy pathways for legal economic migration seem to emerge from oblivion. The article highlights a number of issues with regards to the EU’s legal migration agenda.

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    Legal channels recognised as way to reduce irregular migration

    On paper, the EU has recognised that the absence of legal channels for migration contributes to a market for irregular migration. Yet, the coordination of creating pathways for legal economic migration to the EU have not taken a prominent place in the EU’s response to the migration situation to date – despite several agreements in the past to do so (e.g. the Joint Valletta Action Plan between Africa and Europe). In December 2017, the European Commission put forward a proposal for a political roadmap which foresees the adoption of a comprehensive and sustainable migration and asylum policy by June 2018 (European Commission, 2017a). It identifies opening further legal avenues to Europe as one important objective to counter irregular migration (European Commission, 2017b).

    Political Roadmap for a sustainable migration policy

    Beyond the EU’s resettlement scheme for refugees, the EU roadmap envisages three legal pathways: attracting talent, a new Blue Card and EU coordinated pilot projects with specific partner countries. For the latter, the Commission notes that it is ready to support financially and coordinate pilot projects for legal migration to EU member states who would agree to receive economic migrants from partner countries. In addition, the EU Commission suggests each EU member state to appoint Sherpas to work on all aspects of the EU migration agenda.

    Legal channels, for whom?

    The new EC roadmap for a comprehensive migration package puts a stronger focus on skilled migrants yet does not stipulate which skill-level of migrants would be included in the envisaged pilot schemes with partner countries (European Commission, 2017b). Would these pilot projects expand the scope and be open to lower-skilled economic migrants or would they be yet another scheme targeting the upper end of the skills spectrum?

    This is a crucial question if the aim in part is to help address the market for irregular migration, smuggling and to offer credible alternatives to a considerable part of today’s irregular migrants towards Europe. The group of irregular migrants moving due to hardships into the EU but not qualifying for refugee status (typically referred to as ‘economic migrants’) have relatively low education levels since they often come from countries with lower average levels of education and are willing to move irregularly for lower skilled jobs in the informal sector (Aggarwal et al., 2016). For this group, the EU’s response has to date been to use EU development tools with a focus on providing alternatives to (irregular) migration and to facilitate return and reintegration.

    A number of articles in this edition have noted that the EU and partner countries should go beyond this and take more concrete steps in following up on commitments made on legal migration for all skill-levels embedded in a longer-term EU external migration strategy. This idea seems politically unpopular for many EU member states. The politics around migration and mobility will be one of the key challenges in the coming years for the EU.

    Legal Migration as leverage in Migration partnerships?

    Pooled efforts in the area of legal migration avenues and access to labour markets have also been said to be a good bargaining chip and provide positive incentives for mutually beneficial and resilient migration partnerships (incl. return and readmission). For example both in the Valletta Action Plan as well as in the fourth progress report on the Partnership Framework on Migration (European Commission, 2017c), visa facilitation and legal migration are considered as levers to negotiate with countries of origin on issues of return and readmission. Similarly, the legal migration pilot projects proposed in the roadmap are meant to encourage member states to receive migrants from “selected partner countries which have shown political engagement to work in partnership with the EU on migration”(European Commission, 2017b).

    To be palatable to partners, such offers would need to be substantial. EU’s partners may be less interested in smaller offers and schemes of a couple of 100 people. They would also need to target skill-levels and experience that match the offers and requirements of European labour markets (Weinar, 2017). In the context of an ageing society, certain sectors continue to need low- to medium skilled workers (cleaning, catering, agriculture, construction) (Ghimis, 2016; Triandafyllidou & Marchetti, 2014; European Parliament, 2015). Yet, given that the job prospects for low-skilled workers in Europe have become more volatile and may further decrease in the wake of automatization and technological change, partnerships on labour mobility with origin countries of irregular migration would need to go hand in hand with education and human capital strategies in partner countries – not only to match demands but also to counter possible ‘brain drain’. It could be built into EU’s longer-term geographic strategic partnerships and its development policies. But it may not be an approach that can be pursued for all countries from where irregular migrants to Europe may originate. Moreover, if mobility channels are used as as a lever for enforcing return, the human rights of those on the move should be a key consideration – an aspect that is particularly salient in a context in which current readmission and return practices have raised concerns (UN, 2017).

    Simplifying existing legal mechanisms.

    Even when options for legal migration exist, cumbersome procedures or complicated administrative hurdles can effectively hinder the utilisation of such opportunities. Prospective migrants may revert to irregular shortcuts as a result. A strong message from non-EU nationals wanting to migrate or already residing in the EU in the recent EC public consultation on its migration policy has been that current conditions to enter, live and work in EU countries are an obstacle when migrating to the EU. Making progress on streamlining and simplifying procedures may be a less controversial element of the EU’s migration policy than is expanding channels and should be addressed in the way forward.

    Focus on re-balancing narratives through addressing concerns of groups that miss out

    Another role for the EU is to help normalise the narrative around migration and to highlight also its positive sides through providing good examples and stories of well-managed migration. Changing narratives can only be successful if conditions are favourable for them to be taken up. This is why the focus should not only be on migrants but also on economic concerns of host communities. Numerous studies have been carried out on the effects of (authorised) migration on development for migrants and host countries (Ruhs, Vargas-Silva, 2015; OECD, 2014). While findings suggest several positive impacts, results diverge and studies show that migration tend to impact native workers unequally, with lower-skilled workers in some occasions facing increased competition from a cheaper and more flexible labour force. Creating fertile grounds for different narratives may also mean identifying winners and losers of immigration, providing assistance to the latter and EU support to member states to better absorb potential shocks. The principle to target host communities and arriving migrants jointly is well enshrined in the EU’s external development cooperation but could be a stronger guidance also within Europe. Measures targeting disadvantaged groups can help native workers develop skills in areas where migrants may have a lower comparative advantage (e.g. strong language and communication skills) (Somerville & Sumption, 2009).

    Balance between rights and admission?

    Progress still needs to be made in finding a good balance between migrants’ rights that facilitate integration and migrants’ contributions and the urge of EU member states to reduce perceived ‘pull factors’ through restricting rights. Supporting the adequate implementation of existing European Directives by EU member states in the area of migrants’ rights is part of this. EU member states such as Belgium fail to fully implement a common set of rights for non-EU workers in the area of working conditions, pensions, social security and access to public services (agreed through the Single Permit Directive 2011/98/EU). Moreover, in the last years the trend has been to limit migrants’ rights in the EU (i.e. several EU member states have restricted the rights of refugees to family reunification, against the backdrop of larger inflows). While there may be a trade-off in high-income countries between the openness to admitting migrant workers and the rights granted after admission (Ruhs, 2013), restrictive policies are unlikely to reduce push factors of migration flows and can have negative impacts on integration outcomes and on facilitating development contributions of migrants in countries of origin (Council of Europe, 2016).

    Support a positive migration agenda externally

    Also externally, the EU, through its development cooperation, trade and investment policies, can support a positive migration agenda that helps facilitate connectivity and support mobility channels so that shorter-distance for labour migration can take place in safer manner without the need to rely on irregular means provided by smugglers. This does not only include the creation of better living conditions (i.e. through the ‘root causes’ agenda) but considering migration and mobility as integral part of development processes and integrating relevant dimensions into development planning and programming. Innovative schemes, such as the ‘No Lean Season’ project of in Bangladesh, which support mobility of farmers in the lean season to improve food security and livelihoods (Evidence Action, 2018) or a reinforced support to bilateral and regional mobility agendas abroad could be part of it. The EU is currently developing guidelines for integrating migration into several thematic development cooperation areas. The full implementation of such efforts could help to ensure that positive migration aspects can be better identified.

    The spectrum for action on legal migration within Europe, with partners and abroad, is wide and many political interests need to be navigated and weighed in the coming years. Yet, making progress on the legal migration agenda would meaningfully substantiate the EU’s ambition to play a constructive role globally and in the context of the the UN Global Migration Compact negotiations in 2018.


    Aggarwal, V., La China, F., Vaculova. L. 2016 Irregular Migration, Refugees and Informal Labour Markets in the EU: The rise of European Sweatshops? European Institute for Asian Studies

    Council of Europe. 2016. Time for Europe to get migrant integration right. Issue Paper. Commissioner for Human Rights

    European Commission. 2017a. Migration: A Roadmap. The Commission’s Contribution to the Leaders’ Agenda

    European Commission. 2017b. Resettlement and Legal Migration. The Commission’s Contribution to the Leaders’ Agenda. Dec. 7. 2017

    European Commission. 2017c. Fourth Progress Report on the Partnership Framework with third countries under the European Agenda on Migration. Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council

    European Parliament. 2015. Directorate General for Internal Policies Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Exploring New Avenues for Legislation for Labour Migration to the European Union

    Evidence Action. 2017. No lean season. Project page, see (Accessed 24 Jan, 2018).

    Ghimis, A. 2016. The EU’s Labour Migration Policy: Recent Developments and What More is Needed in IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2016

    International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 2017. Legal Migration, Rights, Protection for Vulnerable African Migrants Key to Implementation of 2015 Valletta Action Plan: IOM

    Somerville, W., Sumption,M. 2009. Immigration and the labour Market. Theory, Evidence and Policy. Migration Policy Institute. Equality and Human Rights Commission

    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “The fiscal and economic impact of migration.” Policy Brief, Paris, 2014. Ruhs, M. and Vargas-Silva, C. 2015. “The Labour Market Effects of Immigration.” Migration Observatory briefing, COMPAS, University of Oxford, UK, May 2015.

    Ruhs, M., 2013. The price of rights: Regulating international labor migration. Princeton University Press.

    Triandafyllidou, A & Marchetti, S.. 2014. “Europe 2020: addressing low skill labour migration at times of fragile recovery,” Policy Paper, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Global Governance Programme, 15p. Florence, 2014

    United Nations (UN). 2017. “Making migration work for all”. Report of the Secretary-General. 72nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 72). 12 December 2017

    Weinar, A. 2017. Legal migration in the EU’s external policy: An objective or a bargaining chip? In Carrera, S., Geddes, A., Guild, E. and Stefan, M. (Eds.): Pathways towards legal migration into the EU – Reappraising concepts, trajectories and policies.

    About the authors
    Anna Knoll is Head of the Migration Programme at ECDPM.
    Noemi Cascone is a Junior Policy Officer in the Migration Programme at ECDPM.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Focus on Migration: Moving backward, moving forward? Volume 7, Issue 1 (Winter 2018)
    The contributors of this Great Insights on migration looked at policy frameworks and processes, existing realities and ongoing initiatives, as well as possible ways forward. The issue explores not only the complex challenges but also the potential that human mobility holds for development.
    05 February 2018
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