Achieving the “Partnership” in the European Union’s Talent Partnerships
The European Commission will mark a new chapter in EU cooperation on migration with third countries with the formal launch of its Talent Partnerships, which seek to combine mobility schemes for work or training with investments in third countries in related areas, such as vocational education and training, diaspora engagement, labor market analysis, and the reintegration of returning migrants. The rationale for this scheme, set out in the Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum last September, is twofold: first, offering avenues for Member States to address pressing labor and skills needs, and second, promoting deeper cooperation with third countries on a range of migration, mobility, and related socioeconomic issues.
The Talent Partnerships being formally unveiled June 11 will build on a long tradition of cooperation on migration, including a recent set of legal migration pilot projects funded by the European Union. They are distinguished both by their scope—with plans to combine mobility schemes with capacity-building efforts on migration—and geography, targeting Africa, countries in Europe’s “Neighbourhood” (in the East and around the Mediterranean basin), and the Western Balkans. The “talent” framing also signals a much-needed shift towards viewing these partnerships as part of a broader migration and skills strategy, and away from viewing these initiatives primarily as a vehicle to reduce incentives to migrate irregularly.
The Talent Partnerships come at a critical moment for Europe. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe was falling behind in the global race to attract, develop, and retain the talented workers needed to drive economic growth. Now, as Europe emerges from its dual public-health and economic crises, the need for smart and nimble migration policies that can admit non-EU nationals with in-demand skills and help address emerging shortages is even more acute. While the pandemic upended demand for workers in some hard-hit sectors (such as hospitality and tourism), it also revealed the important contributions of immigrant workers across the skills spectrum in key sectors such as health care and social care, information and communications technology (ICT), logistics, agriculture, and construction. Alongside much-needed investments in their education and training systems to upskill local workers, European governments will need to recalibrate their migration policies to ensure they can meet current and emerging needs, whether through systemic reforms or more targeted mobility schemes.
The success of these partnerships will hinge on the degree of support they can win from Member States, the private sector, and third countries. Mobility schemes offer a means to test different approaches to manage labor migration, including ways to work with third-country partners to recruit workers, and opportunities to maximize the development benefits for participating migrants and countries of origin. But with a few exceptions, such as Germany’s “Triple Win” project, analysis by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has found that many of these initiatives have struggled to achieve scale and thus build on these policy experiments. Moving beyond the “pilot” phase will require sustained political and often, financial support from Member States, which are the gatekeepers for migrant admissions; continuing offers of employment and/or training from employers who see the merits of participation; and the ongoing commitment of third countries both to facilitate mobility of their nationals and to test these new approaches.
EU and Member State officials will need to work closely with employers to explain the rationale behind the Talent Partnerships and pinpoint how and where these arrangements can meet their labor and skills needs. While economic analyses can point to fast-growing sectors (such as ICT or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] sectors) that might benefit from this type of intervention, policymakers will need to make the case to employers that participating in this type of scheme is worthwhile. Some companies may be wary of governments getting involved in their recruitment operations or may simply prioritize lobbying for more systemic reforms, such as reducing the red tape involved in government migration processes. But for others, Talent Partnerships could offer some tangible benefits. For example, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often lack experience and capacity in recruiting workers from other countries and could thus benefit from targeted resources and support to navigate this process. And as experience with the recent pilot projects (such as the International Organization for Migration-led MATCH project) has shown, these schemes can provide an avenue for employers to build their networks in the partner country and potentially identify avenues for collaboration or expanding their business operations, and to contribute to training and upskilling these workers.
Another key ingredient will be working closely with partner countries to ensure that Talent Partnerships can truly reflect shared priorities around mobility and skills. All too often, cooperation with third countries on migration ends up focusing on destination-country needs (such as migration management), with less attention paid to the priorities of third countries (such as improving economic prospects for their nationals, including through mobility). Not only does this represent a missed opportunity, but the result is deeply uneven political commitment to these partnerships, which can result in this cooperation falling victim to the politics of the day.
Setting expectations about what Talent Partnerships can achieve and on what timeline will be critical. While the appetite for additional legal migration pathways remains high, in practice numbers moving under recent mobility schemes have been small, and this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. Transparency about these objectives and potential outcomes will be key for building trust with partner countries, especially those with less experience of cooperation on migration with Europe. And in the wake of a historic public-health and economic crisis, policymakers will need to pay close attention to partner-country concerns about potential “brain drain.”
The appeal of the Talent Partnerships model lies not only in the concrete mobility opportunities it can offer in the short term but in the broader pledge to invest in capacity building on migration and skills. The Talent Partnerships have been pitched as a “framework” that will bring these activities together, supported by EU funding, and they could thus serve as a vehicle not only for developing the talent pool for European employers but boosting development benefits for partner countries. For example, the schemes could invest in training both prospective migrants and their peers in countries of origin—the “global skills partnership” model proposed in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration—drawing inspiration from the EU-supported recent pilot project with Morocco (led by the Belgian Development Agency, Enabel), which offered locals training in ICT and English-language skills and resulted in half finding employment or work experience in Morocco.
The Talent Partnerships could also offer invaluable support to partner countries to improve their labor migration governance, especially when looking beyond established partners for cooperation, such as Morocco and Tunisia. Such activities can range from labor market assessments to pinpoint available workers and potential opportunities for further investments in education and training, to expanding government oversight of the activities of recruitment agencies and promote fair recruitment and working conditions, to improving reintegration support for returning workers.
By taking this longer-term perspective, the Talent Partnerships could help lay the groundwork for more durable cooperation on migration that looks beyond short-term political priorities (such as returns) to identify common ground on migration and skills.