The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

25 Oct 2023



James Bowes highlights that higher levels of immigration from countries outside the European Economic Area is not just a UK trend; it is a continent-wide phenomenon with its roots in an ageing population and economic growth in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe.

In recent years, a major European economy has seen a sharp drop in immigration from EU member states. In response, the country has liberalised the rules for immigration from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA). Over twice as many work permits were granted to non-EEA nationals in 2022 than in 2016. No, I’m not talking about the UK after Brexit. The country I just described is actually Germany.

And Germany is far from a special case among EU member states. For example, the 2022 Irish census shows that the Polish national population has declined by 24% since 2016. Meanwhile, the Indian national population in Ireland has quadrupled. This is a very similar trend to the one that has taken place in the UK since Brexit, despite Ireland remaining in the EU.

Chart showing that across the EU (excluding the UK), the number of first work permits granted to non-EEA nationals has tripled in a decade

Across the EU (excluding the UK), the number of first work permits granted to non-EEA nationals has tripled in a decade. This indicates an increased demand for workers that can’t be filled from within the EU.

One reason for this increased demand is an ageing population within the EU. All EU member states have birth rates below the replacement level of 2.1 live births per woman. In Malta, Spain, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Cyprus it is below 1.4.

An ageing population means fewer workers enter the workforce than retire. This makes it more difficult for employers to fill job vacancies. An ageing population also increases the need for workers in health and social care. Without immigration, taxes would need to rise for a shrinking number of workers to be able to fund the pensions of a growing population of retirees.

Another factor in the increased demand for workers is economic growth. The Southern European economy has had a strong post-pandemic recovery. Tourism is a major driver of this economic growth. And countries in Central and Eastern Europe have seen strong economic growth since they joined the EU.

This economic growth has increased non-EEA immigration to the EU for two reasons. Firstly, it has directly increased the need for workers in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. Secondly, it has significantly reduced emigration from these countries to the richer countries in Northwestern Europe. Northwestern European countries have increasingly needed to recruit more workers from non-EEA countries instead of workers from other EU member states.

Chart showing that the EU member states that have seen the largest increase in first work permits granted are all in Southern Europe

Chart showing that the EU has needed to recruit more workers from non-EEA countries instead of workers from other EU member states

The EU member states that have seen the largest increase in first work permits granted are all in Southern Europe: Spain, Italy, Croatia and Portugal. Poland is the only country to have seen a decline in first work permit grants, but still grants significantly more than any other EU member state.

Poland has had to diversify its overseas recruitment of workers due to the war in Ukraine. In 2016, 94% of Polish work permits went to Ukrainian nationals, but this this had fallen to 48% in 2022. The largest increase has been in work permits granted to Belarusian nationals.

To encourage high skilled immigration, the EU has liberalised the Blue Card Directive. The Blue Card is a work permit for highly qualified non-EEA nationals that allows holders to change jobs and move between different EU countries more easily. The salary threshold has been lowered to between 1 and 1.6 times the median salary of the country granting the Blue Card. IT professionals with three years’ work experience are now exempt from the requirement to have a degree.

The EU is also negotiating liberalisations of two other directives that regulate immigration. The proposed revision of the Single Permit Directive will reduce processing times for a work and residence permit and give non-EEA national workers who lose their job longer to find a new job. The proposed revision of the Long-Term Residents Directive will make it easier to obtain permanent residency, especially for people who have lived in multiple EU countries or who initially moved to the EU as a student or asylum seeker. Long-term residents have similar rights to EU citizens, including freedom of movement.

Several countries have also liberalised work permit rules in response to a shortage of workers. Italy has increased the annual cap on work permit numbers from 30,850 in 2016 to 75,000 in 2022. It plans to further increase the annual quota to 165,000 by 2025.

Spain has made it easier for graduating international students and undocumented migrants to obtain a work permit. The shortage occupation list has been expanded to allow employers to recruit non-EEA nationals for a wider variety of jobs.

Germany has just liberalised the rules for skilled immigration. The changes make it easier for people with vocational training to obtain recognition of their qualification. A points-based opportunity card for job seekers will be introduced. The annual quota for workers from six non-EU countries in the Western Balkans has been increased from 25,000 to 50,000; this quota is in addition to any workers that qualify as skilled workers.

Portugal has introduced the CPLP visa. This allows people from Portuguese speaking countries to obtain a work permit if they have a job offer. Job seekers are now able to temporarily move to Portugal while they look for work.

Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, the country has seen a significant reduction in immigration from the EEA and a large increase in immigration from non-EEA countries. However, as we have seen, this trend is not unique to the UK, but rather a continent-wide phenomenon. An ageing population and growing economies in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe have increased the demand for non-EEA immigration across the EU. This demand is significant enough that the EU and several individual member states have recently liberalised immigration laws to attract more immigrant workers.

The new immigration system is one of the most obvious areas the UK has gone in its own direction since leaving the EU. But, as we can see, even here the UK is not as different as we think.

By James Bowes, Space Management Assistant, Strategic Planning and Analytics, University of Warwick.


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