The EU on Monday (25 May) adopted plans for a European Union work permit aimed at attracting highly skilled foreigners to the bloc, similar to the US' Green Card.
Dubbed the Blue Card, it will allow foreign workers to be employed in any EU member state except Great Britain, Ireland and Denmark and enjoy limited social and welfare rights for themselves and their family members for a renewable period from one to four years.
The 24 member states who have signed up for the scheme will have two years to transpose it into national law.
They will grant Blue Card holders equal treatment with nationals when it comes to "working conditions, including pay and dismissal", recognition of qualifications, the right to participate in trade unions and limited social security and pension rights, as well as access to housing and counselling.
The permit allows for restricted movement between member states. "After 18 months of legal residence in the first member state as an EU Blue Card holder, the person concerned and his family members may move, under certain conditions, to a member state other than the first member state for the purpose of highly qualified employment," the text reads.
The original proposal, initially tabled in 2007 by the European Commission, was watered down after concerns by member states that it would allow Brussels to interfere too much in their national labour markets.
New member states also pointed out that the Blue Card would discriminate against their own workers, who still face restrictions in some old member states like Germany.
Punishment for hiring illegal immigrants
The directive was formally adopted at a ministerial meeting on Monday in Brussels. The EU ministers also approved a set of common standards and sanctions against employers — both individuals and companies - who illegally hire foreign immigrants.
The new rules aim to "put an end to abuses by unscrupulous employers who make contracts with illegally-staying [workers] providing them in the labour market with low salaries and poor labour conditions."
They require employers to ensure that their non-EU workers hold a valid residence permit and keep a copy of that document for inspection. Employers will also be obliged to notify national authorities when they hire a non-EU national.
Failure to comply will mean fines "which will increase in amount according to the number of illegally employed foreigners" as well as the payment of the return costs for the illegal non-EU employees.
A harsher sanction could see employers of illegal workers excluded from public funding schemes and participation in public tenders.