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Document 52001AE0938

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on a Community immigration policy"

OJ C 260, 17.9.2001, p. 104–112 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on a Community immigration policy"

Official Journal C 260 , 17/09/2001 P. 0104 - 0112

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on a Community immigration policy"

(2001/C 260/19)

On 1 February 2001 the Commission decided to consult the Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the above-mentioned communication.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 20 June 2001. The rapporteur was Mr Pariza Castaños and the co-rapporteur was Mr Mengozzi.

At its 283rd plenary session (meeting of 12 July 2001), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 61 votes to two with 16 abstentions.

1. Introduction

1.1. A number of principles need to be restated if immigration issues are to be tackled effectively:

1.1.1. Emigration is a basic right recognised as such in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948(1).

1.1.2. Sometimes, emigration is a venture freely embarked upon by individuals in order to fulfil their own personal goals, whether they be of a professional, family, economic or other nature. Often, however, it is a necessity dictated by unacceptable living conditions and bleak prospects.

1.1.3. The public authorities are therefore duty-bound to enable this right to be exercised, promoting consensus among the host population; they must also manage migratory flows in a responsible manner.

1.1.4. The history of the last 250 years in particular demonstrates that migration happens regardless of the sometimes violent hostility of those who - convinced that they are safeguarding their own well-being and identity - reject integration with others, even when a variety of factors, including economics, make integration useful or even essential.

1.2. For these reasons, many EU countries are in need of a wide-ranging and thorough-going political and educational campaign by political, economic, social and religious groups to explain that immigration is a right. Clearly, in exchange for rights, immigrants have a duty to comply with the written laws of the countries in which they wish to live, work and establish families.

1.3. Community immigration policy covers humanitarian immigration (refugees, persons enjoying temporary protection, etc.) as well as immigration for family reunification, economic or labour reasons. The present Commission communication focuses on economic and labour immigration, although the other types are mentioned a number of times.

1.4. There is a developing body of Community law concerning immigration for humanitarian reasons. Some measures have already been implemented, such as the establishment of a European Refugee Fund(2); others are in the process of being adopted, including a directive on temporary protection(3), a directive on common minimum standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status(4), and a communication on a common asylum procedure(5).

1.5. Family reunion is also being covered by legislation, in the form of a directive on the right to family reunification which now only awaits final approval by the Council(6).

1.6. It is appropriate for the immigration policy communication to focus on labour immigration, although it should not lose sight of the existence of other types. The present opinion therefore concentrates mainly on economic and labour immigration.

1.7. The Commission communication lays the foundations on which a Community immigration policy can be built: such a policy was previously impossible, as it was not a Community competence before the Amsterdam Treaty came into force. Moreover, it does so by adopting a new and comprehensive approach to the immigration policies of the EU Member States over the last 30 years. This new approach of Community immigration policy is urgently needed. In general terms, the present opinion welcomes the Commission's communication, although it suggests some fine-tuning of a number of specific aspects.

2. Summary of the Commission communication

2.1. The Commission explains why a new approach to immigration is necessary. The key factor is the EU's new economic and demographic context. Firstly, the importance of immigrant labour to meet existing demand on the labour market is becoming increasingly clear; secondly, the demographic outlook suggests that immigration, although not a miracle cure for all the problems generated by Europe's ageing population, can certainly help to alleviate them.

2.2. The Commission emphasises that the demand for labour applies not only to skilled jobs, as in the new technologies, but also to unskilled vacancies.

2.3. The communication points out that over the last 30 years, Member State immigration policies have been based on the assumption that Europe did not require economic or labour immigration, and legal entry for migrants has become very difficult. At the same time, there is a real labour shortage in certain sectors of the economy. The result has been that immigration has been diverted into illegal channels, increasing the trafficking of human beings and exploitation of undocumented workers.

2.4. The communication's central proposal is that the need for economic and labour immigration be recognised, and that the proper channels be re-opened for legal immigration. This is the best way of keeping immigration under control and clamping down on illegal immigration and exploitation of migrants.

2.5. The Commission places its proposals within the framework of the decisions adopted at the Tampere European Council, which speak of partnership with countries of origin, progress towards a common European asylum system, fair treatment of third-country nationals and working towards common management of migration flows.

2.6. Cooperation with countries of origin must have a positive effect on their economic and political development. European immigration policy must benefit both countries of origin and host countries, cushioning the former from the negative impact of emigration, particularly in terms of the costs they incur in training people who subsequently use their skills elsewhere. The Commission also refers to the need to facilitate mobility for migrants between countries of origin and host countries, in order to encourage them to participate in the economic life of their country of origin.

2.7. In order to open up new legal channels for economic and labour immigration, the Commission asks the Member States to adopt a new approach, based on acknowledging the positive value of immigration and the benefits of a more open policy that abandons the current restrictive approach.

2.8. The mechanism it proposes for setting annual ceilings for labour immigration involves each Member State drawing up periodic estimates of their needs, and cooperation and information exchange across the Community regarding these estimates. The Commission views annual quotas as inappropriate, because they are inflexible. In order to implement a flexible admission system, the Member States are to prepare reports on both existing admissions and their intentions on immigration. The Council will use these reports as a basis for adopting an overall admission policy for the European Union. Close cooperation with the social partners will be required throughout the process.

2.9. Admission procedures will also have to be harmonised, clear and straightforward in order to allow migrants to enter legally for work purposes. The Commission suggests that these procedures might include the introduction of a job-seeker visa.

2.10. The Commission unequivocally favours granting admitted persons similar rights to those enjoyed by EU citizens, and argues that these rights should be incremental, matching the length of stay granted. It therefore proposes long-term residence permits and permanent work permits, which would be held by persons who have lived in an EU country a certain number of years (to be determined). It views the proposed concept of civic citizenship as worthy of development, with the aim of putting Member State nationals and long-term third country residents on a similar citizenship footing.

2.11. The communication pulls no punches in arguing that immigration policy must be backed with wide-reaching measures to encourage the integration of immigrants into society. It calls for the necessary resources to be earmarked, and for specific integration programmes to be implemented at national, regional and local level. Integration programmes must involve national, regional and local authorities, the social partners and other civil society organisations.

2.12. The Commission recognises that for integration to succeed, majority attitudes in host societies must be favourable. This affects the message conveyed by politicians and the mass media in their role as opinion-formers.

3. General comments

3.1. The starting point in formulating a new Community immigration policy must be a clear recognition of the personal right to migrate. The Community countries and institutions can and must regulate migratory flows by fixing criteria and procedures to channel them in a controlled way. This implies laying down rules on the admission of immigrants and managing the right to emigration responsibly. It is incumbent upon all public authorities, social players and the media to counter the current unfavourable view of economic immigrants, who are not seen as people exercising their right to emigration: this view encourages racism and xenophobia.

3.2. Immigration and the labour market

3.2.1. It is very important for the Commission to acknowledge that the EU suffers a deficit not only of skilled, but also of unskilled workers. The Member States look favourably upon highly-skilled immigrants, especially in the new technologies sector, where they recognise a labour deficit, but fail to appreciate the economic and social contribution made by the immigration of less-skilled workers.

3.2.2. The restrictive labour-immigration policies practised over recent decades by the Member States have gone hand in hand with rising demand for unskilled immigrant labour in some economic sectors (agriculture, domestic service, hotel and catering, construction, certain industries, loading and unloading of goods, and other services). This demand has been met to a large extent by illegal immigrants. The communication ought to acknowledge this more clearly, indicating the factors which have led to unskilled immigration occurring through illegal channels. There are two main causes of labour migration: firstly, the lack of prospects for many people in their own countries and secondly, the availability of work for immigrants in host countries. Keeping legal immigration channels closed at the same time as such work is available only encourages illegal immigration.

3.2.3. Immigration of both skilled and unskilled workers, including those without legal status, has positive effects which should be highlighted. Immigrants can help prolong the current phase of economic growth. In many geographical areas and sectors of the economy, businesses need labour which they cannot find on the employment market. Immigrants can help certain activities to survive where workers are no longer available locally, thereby supporting the continued economic and social vitality of some areas of the Union. The future of social security systems largely depends on the growth of the economy and employment, as well as on demographic trends(7). Legal immigration can make a positive contribution in all these areas.

3.2.4. The most important "pull" factor in non-Community immigration has been the existence of an available labour market. The most noteworthy aspect is that a labour market specifically geared to illegal immigrants has been able to exist. The competitiveness of some businesses has been based on the low wages they pay their workers, exploiting their illegal and vulnerable status.

3.2.5. The vast majority of businesses are concerned to comply with employment legislation. The existence of a minority of non-compliant employers undermines competition rules and damages the legitimate interests of the majority of businesses which abide by laws and collective agreements and pay the appropriate taxes and social security contributions. Exploitative employment of illegal immigrants also jeopardises other workers, whose working conditions are pushed down. The state and its social security system are also affected by the missing tax revenue and social security contributions.

3.3. Legal immigration

3.3.1. A new immigration policy, including legal entry channels for immigrants, must have a twin-track approach: firstly, to combat the black economy which provides work for illegal immigrants, and secondly, to overhaul existing mechanisms in order to ensure that legal entry is from now onwards more accessible.

3.3.2. Combating the black economy, which profits from illegal immigration, requires practical legal measures and social agreements. One objective must be met: immigrants already here must convey to those thinking of coming the message that unless they enter legally, they will find it difficult to secure employment. If this message is conveyed, then an effective means of regulating migratory flows will have been put in place. Exchange of information between immigrants living in the EU and other people in their countries of origin is an important influencing factor in migratory processes: the former should have a proper knowledge of the procedures for legal entry into the EU and should encourage legal entry while discouraging illegal immigration.

3.3.3. Over recent years, many European countries have introduced new criminal sanctions to tackle the organised criminal gangs engaged in smuggling immigrants; however, the same vigour has not been displayed in bringing the criminal law to bear on the minority of employers who exploit them. The Commission's communication should call for this to be done.

3.3.4. The fight against illegal trafficking networks must be stepped up. These networks have mushroomed in recent years, controlling a worldwide operation worth some US $ 13000 million a year(8). Measures against these organisations remain inadequate and uncoordinated. Unlawful association for the purpose of trafficking in human beings must be made a specific criminal offence in those countries where this is not already the case.

3.3.5. The communication is clear in its intention to open up existing legal channels for entry. However, the new mechanisms need to be more clearly identified and defined. In terms of labour migration, it is apparent that entry can occur in two main ways: firstly, when a person still in the country of origin has an offer of employment in an EU Member State; and secondly, by obtaining legal permission to come and seek work. At present, only the former channel exists in most EU countries - the second exists only under Italian law. The second procedure, for legal emigration, merits backing.

3.3.6. Experience would appear to suggest that restricting entry to migrants only if they already have an offer of employment inevitably leads to a substantial proportion of immigration taking place illegally. This is because many employers will only take on individuals they have been able to interview in advance - many jobs are therefore only available to migrants who have already crossed EU borders. A job-seeker visa is the best way of avoiding this stumbling block, and should be more clearly advocated by the Commission.

3.3.7. It must be accepted that a number of legal immigration procedures exist. The individual immigrant's own "migration plan" should be taken into account. Such a plan might consist of setting up a business, seeking a job, enhancing vocational skills, etc. The plan should be looked at in a positive light by the immigration authorities(9).

3.4. Immigration and employment policies

3.4.1. Unemployment in the EU is falling, in the wake of years of economic growth, macroeconomic policy-making, structural reforms and active job-creation policies. There are no grounds to suppose that a new immigration policy might have a negative impact on falling unemployment. The facts suggest the opposite: immigration will facilitate economic growth and, consequently, job creation.

3.4.2. This new immigration policy should form part of Europe's employment strategy, and must under no circumstances serve to tone down policy-making or water down employment policy decisions taken at either Community or Member State level. Action to enhance employability by means of training for job-seekers should be stepped up, as should equal opportunities policies.

3.4.3. The national employment action plans must include criteria which are helpful in managing migratory flows. With the necessary flexibility, national employment plans must give consideration to immigration forecasts in order to ensure that the labour market functions properly.

3.4.4. The employment guidelines, drawn up annually on the basis of the four "pillars" (employability, entrepreneurship, adaptability and equal opportunities), should embrace the new immigration policy.

3.4.5. The guidelines will promote higher quality employment for both Member State nationals and immigrants.

3.4.6. The new approach to immigration policy requires the social partners to take a more active part. They must be consulted, and be involved in defining migration objectives. The authorities will be backed by the social partners in combating any exploitation of illegal immigrants. Using their collective independence, the social partners must work in the field of labour relations to encourage the social integration of immigrants and to combat all forms of discrimination.

3.5. Illegal immigration

3.5.1. While working to open up legal channels for migration, it is necessary to address the present situation whereby large numbers of illegal immigrants are present in the Member States, as a result of decades of restrictive policies. It is desirable that their situation should be legalised: not only the immigrants themselves, but also the labour market as a whole and the welfare state could benefit, sectors of the black economy would be brought out into the open.

3.5.2. The communication mentions that some countries have legalisation procedures, but the Committee believes the Commission should adopt a positive stance on this, and propose flexible legalisation procedures. The Commission should undertake research into the social and economic impact on both host societies and immigrants of the legalisation procedures which have been completed. All the research suggests that legalisation procedures are beneficial for social integration, tax receipts, social security contributions and the functioning of the employment market.

3.5.3. Gradually legalising the situation of illegal immigrants must be an element in a process including opening up legal immigration channels and intensifying measures against the criminal organisations involved in trafficking human beings. It should be made clear to public opinion that if approached in this way, legalisation will not boost illegal immigration, but rather will reduce it significantly.

4. Specific comments

4.1. Cooperation with countries of origin

4.1.1. The communication rightly argues that migration must also be of benefit to countries of origin. The brain drain is probably the worst aspect of emigration, as countries of origin receive no return on the investment they make in training. However, we must be more explicit: European host countries must make substantial investments in cooperation and development programmes in the countries of origin, including training and research activities. Aid for training and education has so far represented only a minor element in development cooperation: it should be increased, as should exchange programmes for students and researchers.

4.1.2. Support for economic and human development in the countries of origin should be on a much higher level than at present. Such support should focus on stimulating high-quality locally-generated development, especially of human resources.

4.1.3. Point 2.1 of the communication discusses increasing immigrants' mobility between the receiving countries and countries of origin, so that migrants can act as a factor for development in their home countries. This concept of mobility should be elevated into one of the key aspects in managing migratory flows. People who have already obtained a residence permit in an EU Member State must not lose their residence rights, even if they spend lengthy periods of time outside the relevant Member State (not only for visits, as suggested in the communication).

4.1.4. Mobility is taken to mean not only those with permanent residence permits, but also others who come for temporary work. Such people must be able to return to their countries in the certainty that they will be able to come back for further seasonal work if they so wish.

4.1.5. Political and official support for voluntary return must be forthcoming if the benefits for the country of origin are to be maximised. This involves supporting employment or business start-up projects with economic or training assistance.

4.2. Fair treatment of third-country nationals

4.2.1. The communication suggests that immigrants should enjoy rights "comparable" to those of Member State nationals. The Committee believes the term "same" rights should be used, while taking account of the differing legal nature of the situation of illegal immigrants, legal immigrants with temporary permits, and long-term residents.

4.2.2. As a minimum, the acknowledged rights of immigrants present in the EU should be those enshrined in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states that all persons enjoy basic rights. These include: right to family life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of assembly and association; right to education; freedom to choose an occupation and right to engage in work; non-discrimination; employment rights and social security; right to effective access to courts and to legal aid.

4.2.3. The communication does not view illegal immigrants as persons whose rights should be guaranteed. The final aim is for these people, who are present in European society, to enjoy the fundamental human rights laid down by international treaties covering the Member States, and by the European Convention on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms. The same applies to the social rights enjoyed by Member State citizens: health care, children's education and appropriate social benefits.

4.2.4. Those resident on temporary permits must enjoy the same employment and social rights as nationals of the host country. The Commission quite rightly argues that their legal status, and that of their families, must be improved.

4.2.5. Immigrants with five years' residence must be given a permanent permit, including the right to free movement within the EU, under the same conditions as EU citizens, and the right to vote in local and European elections, as also applies to EU citizens living in another Member State.

4.2.6. The Commission advocates forced return in order to protect European immigration policy. The Committee considers that there should be no discussion of repatriation unless two conditions are met: firstly, any humanitarian factors must be looked at before proceeding to repatriation; secondly, in each case all the possibilities for legalisation of status offered by legislation must have been exhausted prior to repatriation. However, voluntary repatriation should always be sought. A comprehensive approach to voluntary repatriation requires a series of measures and types of assistance to make it attractive to those concerned.

4.3. Management of migratory flows

4.3.1. Management of migration flows, the subject of point 2.4, needs to be carried out both in the host countries (here, the EU Member States) and in the countries of origin. The communication points to the need for intensive dialogue with countries of origin, but the Committee considers that the role of EU Member State consular representation in these countries should also be broached. Specialist immigration departments in consulates should be strengthened so that they can deal with applications for entry, whether for work or family reunification, carry out the necessary procedures, act as a conduit for offers of employment, introduce mechanisms for cooperating with social players, etc. These departments could also run appropriate information campaigns, and would carry out the important preliminary work which is essential to ensure that migration occurs through legal channels.

4.3.2. The role of consulates in migration affairs must be transparent, with no room for arbitrary decisions on granting of entry visas (not only for work). This new policy should boost harmonisation of Community consular procedures. National employment services in the countries of origin must report job vacancies and facilitate job seekers' access to immigration offices. This will make procedures more transparent.

4.3.3. This work would be facilitated by an information system of the Eures type, to be run by the social partners and NGOs and making use of data on job opportunities and conditions.

4.3.4. The new approach to immigration should include steps to legalise the situation of immigrants who do not currently have the right papers. If the communication wishes to facilitate entry, in the interests of the Community's economy and future demographic balance, then the initial focus should be on undocumented migrants already living within the EU. Point 3.2 of the communication emphasises combating irregular work and exploitation of immigrants: this would be facilitated by legalising the situation of undocumented migrants. Forthcoming Community legislation should call for this explicitly in a separate point following point 3.2, based on an acknowledgement of the link between restrictive policies, illegal immigration and employment. The Commission must launch initiatives to encourage flexible legalisation measures.

4.3.5. There is no reason why regularisation should be effected through extraordinary procedures (or amnesties); rather, it should take place progressively, determined by conditions such as employment status, family links, degree of integration into society, humanitarian reasons, etc. What is important is to open up ways for undocumented migrants to regularise their situation, in the same way as the communication suggests opening up legal entry channels for new immigrants.

4.3.6. Legislative and fiscal measures, and contractual agreements, are needed to bring companies operating in the black economy gradually into the legal sphere. Employers who persist in exploiting immigrant labour and who do not enter into such agreements should be punished appropriately. These measures must, however, be supplemented by sympathetic treatment of migrants who are being exploited, with the aim of legalising their position. This could encourage the workers themselves to report the exploitation they are subjected to. The cooperation of the social partners is needed in the fight against illegal employment and the exploitation of illegal immigrants. Employers' associations and trade unions at all levels have a very significant role to play in tandem with the employment authorities and, where appropriate, the courts. Positive measures should be adopted to bring "hidden" work to the surface, offering incentives where workers and businesses are put onto a legal footing.

4.3.7. Point 3.4.1 of the communication proposes a process for determining the numbers of immigrants to be admitted to each of the Member States, based on periodic forecasts and indicative targets. Annual quotas are described as "impracticable". The Committee believes that annual national quotas should not be ruled out entirely, although they must be set and implemented in a flexible way. Quotas could be tied to job-seeker visas, or "migration projects"; with the aim of meeting a degree of demand for labour in sectors where it is difficult to establish accurate estimates. In this way each Member State should set a prior number of entry permits to be granted for job-seekers, but could adjust the number in response to periodic analyses and forecasts, with the involvement of the social partners. Regarding quotas, the Committee would argue that admission of third-country nationals to the employment market must remain quite distinct from admission on humanitarian or family reunification grounds. Quotas would be entirely unacceptable in these two cases.

4.3.8. In keeping with the general comments of the present opinion, more clear-cut support should be given to the job-seeker or migration project visas mentioned in point 3.4.2. It seems unlikely that the "economic needs test" referred to in point 3.4.2 could be applied to lower-skilled types of work: another means of legal access to such jobs is necessary.

4.4. Social integration

4.4.1. The Committee fully agrees that specific programmes are needed at national, regional and local level to encourage the social integration of migrants, as discussed in point 3.5 of the communication, but stresses that integration policies must be strongly backed with the necessary resources, since accomplishments to date have proved clearly insufficient. Member State and/or EU integration programmes must focus on clearly defined objectives allowing for assessment of results and comparison of the Member States' efforts.

4.4.2. Integration is to be understood as the insertion of the immigrant population into the shared system of rights and obligations established by the Member States' democratic machinery, with due respect for the individual beliefs of all.

4.4.3. Equality of opportunity must be ensured in providing access to employment and housing for immigrants. A major objective in this area is for individuals to gain rapid entry to the jobs for which they are qualified. Active policies should be introduced to ensure that qualified individuals do not remain for lengthy periods in unskilled jobs.

4.4.4. Education is vital in building civic coexistence for all and the social integration of the immigrant population, and in preventing and combating racism and xenophobia.

4.4.5. Fighting social discrimination of all kinds requires a commitment by political authorities, the social partners and the media. Debate, and well-meaning declarations by leading political figures are not enough, however: there is a need for a practical and determined action programme involving political authorities, the education system and the media in order to convey the proper information and values.

4.4.6. Preparing public opinion for granting equal rights to immigrants and integrating them into society is a major challenge for European societies. It should be pointed out in the communication that all the Member States need to make serious efforts in this direction.

4.4.7. Immigrants' participation in public life is a key aspect in their integration. Voting rights are of great importance in this regard. The Committee would recall a relevant long-standing, but largely ignored, Commission recommendation, which has been transposed into the legislation of only a few Member States. The Commission should assess the effects of exercising the right to vote in local elections, where this has been tried.

4.4.8. The Committee welcomes the Commission's proposal for civic citizenship for third-country nationals, but European citizenship should be advocated for long-term residents. This would require amendment of the Treaty on European Union.

4.5. Public opinion

4.5.1. It will not be easy to persuade public opinion to take a favourable view of the more open immigration policy now being proposed, but far-reaching work to this end is now urgently required.

4.5.2. The greatest possible amount of information on the employment situation, and on the benefits of immigration for economic growth and job creation should be promoted, to counter the view that immigrants take away nationals' jobs.

4.5.3. The demographic trends reported in the communication should also be more widely published for the general public.

4.5.4. The European population must be better informed on the negative impact of "black" or illegal work and the benefits, for the welfare state, of legalising the position of illegal immigrants.

4.5.5. Public bodies, at European and national level, must devote more work and resources to mobilising public opinion in favour of social integration and against racism and xenophobia.

Brussels, 12 July 2001.

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Göke Frerichs

(1) Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that (1) everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state (2) everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

(2) Cf. the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee in OJ C 168, 16.6.2000.

(3) Cf. the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee in OJ C 155, 29.5.2001.

(4) Cf. the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee in OJ C 193, 10.7.2001.

(5) Cf. the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Towards a common asylum procedure and a uniform status, valid throughout the Union, for persons granted asylum [COM(2000) 755 final].

(6) Cf. the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee in OJ C 204, 18.7.2000.

(7) Information Report of the Economic and Social Committee on the demographic situation in the EU and future prospects.

(8) United Nations Conference on Transnational Organized Crime, Palermo, 12-15 December 2000.

(9) Appendix to the Information Report of the Economic and Social Committee.