The European Union's interior ministers agreed Thursday on common principles guiding the way member states manage the influx of non-EU nationals. But a Blue Card scheme for skilled migrants is still on hold.
The new EU Blue Card is meant to work like the American Green Card
The immigration and asylum pact, which is due to be formally adopted by EU leaders at their October 15-16 summit, seeks to improve the management of legal immigration, tighten controls on illegal immigrants and construct a common asylum policy.
"The aim of the pact is to avoid the two obvious potential pitfalls: the creation of a European fortress, and the total opening up to illegal immigration," said French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who was chairing the interior ministers' meeting.
But critics argue that the final, watered-down version agreed by ministers in Brussels on Thursday is ineffective and gives too great a voice to national governments. For instance, the pact calls on EU countries to attract more highly skilled workers from outside the bloc. But it leaves governments with the power to decide who and how many of them should be admitted in their own countries.
The Czech Republic is also currently holding up a deal on a new European "Blue Card" workers visa program. EU officials say a single and simplified EU-wide working visa is needed to attract doctors, nurses, engineers and scientsists.
But Interior Minister Ivan Langer said the Czechs would not agree to the plan until internal EU restrictions are lifted on the movement of workers from new member states. Germany, Belgium, Austria and Denmark have not fully opened up their labor markets to workers from those Eastern European countries who joined the bloc over the last few years.
Hortefeux said he was nonetheless confident that the EU could overcome this obstacle by the end of the year. The scheme will not, however, allow recipients to move around as freely as first envisaged.
The EU is divided over how to respond to the Iraqi refugee crisis
The pact also calls on member states to tighten controls on illegal immigrants and improve the effectiveness of controls on the bloc's external borders, for instance by sharing the fingerprints of incoming foreigners in a common database.
Another proposal involves national authorities enacting expulsion orders made by another member state. However, the EU's border control agency, Frontex, remains grossly underfunded, while there is little evidence that the mutual recognition of expulsion decisions is being implemented, according to a recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank.
Meanwhile, plans for a common asylum policy are progressing slowly and are now not expected to come into force before 2012. Highlighting the difficulties existing in this area, some member states have resisted calls by Germany and Sweden to share out some 10,000 highly vulnerable Iraqi refugees among member states.
On Thursday, ministers limited themselves to giving the green-light to a fact-finding mission to Syria and Jordan, where many displaced Iraqis have fled after the toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein. The mission, which is to take place at the beginning of November, aims to identify those most in need of being granted asylum in Europe.