Spain’s presidency is a political opportunity to have forward-looking action on labor mobility. On 1 July, Spain will assume the next Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). The timing of the Spanish Presidency is particularly relevant, taking place in the final stretch of the European institutional cycle and sandwiched by migration-resistant presidencies like Sweden and Hungary in the midst of a trying period for European labor markets. Spain stands uniquely as one of the more forward-looking European countries on migration; last year, the government passed a pro-active immigration reform with the aim of boosting labor mobility in crucial sectors. Such efforts can provide a template of concrete responses to the challenges posed across the EU by increasing labor shortages and persisting irregular flows. The Spanish government can find strong allies in other like-minded EU countries like Germany and Portugal, who have undertaken similarly progressive reforms, to clear a path for broader coalition at the EU level.   

Spain is aging and has substantial labor shortages. This unique window of opportunity comes not a moment too soon, as the labor shortages caused by Spain’s aging population reach a critical point of urgency. Spain has one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies, with the median age having increased 4 years in only the last decade. By 2050, every one in three Spaniards will be aged 65 or over (up from one in five today); by 2100, the total Spanish population will shrink by a third. This rapid aging is repeated throughout the high-income world, resulting in crushing labor shortages that are already costing the global economy USD 3-7 billion every day. These labor shortages threaten to undermine Spain’s economic recovery from COVID, as there are no workers to deliver EU-funded recovery projects, leading to calls from industry associations for “transnational mobility.”  

Spain needs foreign workers, even where there is high unemployment. More so than many other countries in the same position, Spain has accepted that this demographic aging requires increased openness to foreign workers. Social Security and Migration Minister Jose Luis Escriva justified the recent reforms to ease labor mobility by noting that “an aging population means you will have to depend more on foreign workers to help European countries maintain welfare states and pensions.” The idea that labor mobility can be an answer is often surrounded by skepticism; this is particularly true in the Spanish case where 13.3% of the population is unemployed, and more than 840,000 people under 30 could not find a job during the first quarter of 2022.  

While a valid concern, this high-level view of the labor market fails to see the nuances across sectors and geographies within the Spanish economy. The first is a mismatch in skills and the jobs that young people want to fill, which tend not to match the needs in essential occupations where labor shortages are high (such as construction, transportation, agriculture, aged care). Second, there is a geographic imbalance between where the jobs are and where young people want to be. Even as the overall population shrinks, urban populations in Spain will grow by 11.9% by 2050 as young people move to economic hubs. This leaves rural areas ‘empty’ in a “perfect demographic storm” of aging population, low birth rates, youth exodus, and little in-migration. Migration solutions should be designed in a way that reflects and targets these nuanced needs.  

Labor mobility is pivotal to reducing irregular migration. Voters are also concerned about expanding migration pathways in the context of high irregular migration. Despite a notable decrease in the number of arrivals, irregular migration to the Canary Islands remains a key focus. Misuses of asylum claims originating from Latin America persist too, adding burden to already-stretched national capacities. Migrant smuggling is fueled by high labor demand in Spain and few opportunities in home countries; this dynamic will remain hard to disrupt in the absence of viable opportunities for legal migration. If orderly and large-scale labor mobility pathways are not built to respond to global labor demand, smuggling services will continue to prosper, luring migrants desperate to move and often resulting in unethical working arrangements. In general terms, well-functioning and regulated labor mobility systems can offer alternatives to irregular pathways, reduce migrant smuggling, and answer critical labor market needs.  Efforts that do not systemically integrate labor mobility as structural element of national policies risk falling short of the needed workforce.  

Spain and Latin America offer examples of productive labor mobility partnerships. With about one third of the population living in poverty and many national economies within the region unable to produce enough stable, quality jobs, Latin American migration has almost tripled over the last 30 years. While North America and the Iberian Peninsula are the primary destinations for more than 70% of migrants due to deep economic and cultural ties, in the last decade, Latin American countries have experienced upheaval and new dynamics in regional migratory flows, driven by economic need, natural disasters, and political crises. Wealthier economies are experiencing an aging workforce and urgently need workers in essential sectors. Labor mobility represents a unique solution, and the relationship between Spain and Latin America has become a fertile space for innovation and experimentation, including new programs, pilot projects, legal regimes, and migration management mechanisms. 

Spain’s relationship with Latin America represents a promising scenario. The expansion of the GECCO program, Spain’s main seasonal worker scheme, to some pilot countries in the region can demonstrate an approach that ignites a sense of well-managed migration. Such mobility also leads to mutual economic gains (agricultural wages in Spain can represent an approximate threefold increase in earnings for Honduran workers), something that does not happen with traditional local development programs. Spain and Latin America cooperation can inspire better labor mobility solutions in other EU countries facing similar labor challenges. It can also encourage the EU to broaden its strategic partnerships on labor mobility. In this respect, the EU-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in July 2023 marks the ambition of the upcoming EU Spanish Presidency to increase the EU’s focus in the region. This political opening offers a unique opportunity for Spain and Latin America to demonstrate to the rest of Europe how well-managed mobility pathways can address labor shortages and lift thousands of people out of poverty.