Last month, over 200 million voters have casted their ballot to renew the mandates of the European Union (EU) Parliament. But the EU elections are more than just a moment to designate the new members that will take seat at the Brussels and Strasbourg hemicycles. The concomitance of other national, federal, regional and municipal races allows to take the pulse on many societal questions. To many, the June elections can be seen also as a referendum on migration, or better – on the dysfunctionalities of a system that has exacerbated asymmetries and polarized debates due to its perceived lack of control. Big countries like France, Germany and Italy have seen a continuous shift to the right, with the consolidation of large political fractions on anti-migration positions. In contrast, some progressive signs appear in Scandinavia or the Netherlands, where the rise of populist parties has been somewhat halted. But regardless of the political composition of the next EU Parliament as well as national governments, each leading coalition will still have to address unchanged global trends, with pragmatic and noncontroversial solutions which can reconcile different positions.  

The broadening of labor shortages due to the ongoing unprecedented demographic shifts will continue to dominate the EU and national debates. By 2050, the elderly population is projected to surpass the number of young people, creating significant challenges for social support systems, and shrinking the workforce responsible for tax contributions. Public and private actors will still grapple with the consequences of the lack of qualified workers (or sufficient labor mobility): in Germany alone, two million jobs are expected to remain unfilled, resulting in nearly EUR 100 billion of lost output. Permanent labor shortages and demand-supply mismatches will remain an acute concern for businesses and governments. A world of labor scarcity will mean having too few workers in industries with structural long-term needs. Despite persisting negative political attitudes and technical obstacles such as regulatory barriers, complex labor migration systems, and cumbersome skill recognition processes, most European countries will be forced to consider international migration as a solution to their aging national labor force. Labor mobility will be a realistic opportunity to at least partially address labor scarcity in critical economic sectors such as agriculture, transport, hospitality or long-term care.  

Existing legal channels for migrant workers remain unlikely to meet the actual labor market needs. And recent initiatives at EU level have been mostly small, fragmented, and costly, which complicates efforts to scale them up. As recently echoed at the 14th Global Forum on Migration and Development and in conversation with OECD countries on Skills Mobility Partnerships which LaMP has contributed to, large multi-national companies and highly qualified workers have the capacity to overcome the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles of international labor markets. In contrast, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), by far the largest employing category in the EU, along with workers in service and trade sectors, need support to access pathways. At the same time the outgoing European Commission in Brussels has outlined the way to implement the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, while the incoming one will have to take the necessary steps to making it a reality, starting under the Hungarian EU Council Presidency (announced by the Trump-inspired ‘MEGA’ slogan).  

It is striking that labor mobility has not been featured in any of the 10 ‘building blocks’ that will underpin the national implementation plans. Well-regulated labor mobility will increasingly play a crucial role: governments and employers will need to intensify their calls for policies allowing them to cover unfilled vacancies through international recruitment. They will also have to address the skepticism that often surrounds the idea that labor mobility can be a valid response to the challenges and needs of EU Member States. A narrative anchored around the concept of controlled migration – often monopolized by political parties with rather conservative stands on migration – gains more relevance here. With new evidence confirming that labor demand acts as a significant pull factor for migration, only a narrative embracing well-regulated and predictable migration can provide answers to skeptical fractions, ensure that migrants receive proper protections and meet the economic needs of many critical industries. Well-functioning and regulated labor mobility systems can also help countries achieve certain international developmentgoals by balancing economic opportunities and brain drainconcerns. At the same time, they can be beneficial for migrant workers, offering them alternatives to irregular pathways and adding to the advancement of their agency, rights and skills development. 

There is a clear need for more solutions than proclaims. Pragmatic, politically viable and sustainable approaches which look beyond EU economic interests while embracing international development can improve the economic prospects of sending countries and increase the agency of their citizens. For that to happen, labor mobility needs to be fully embedded among the array of EU and national strategies. Running the risk of falling short of the needed workforce will inflict significant harm on European economies and societies. Improving conditions and wages in certain sectors or extending the retirement age alone will not solve the problem. Mobilizing the domestic workforce alone or facilitating intra-EU mobility will not be sufficient either. Policy makers, demographers, economists, employers and other stakeholders must come together to design labor migration programs in contexts in which it is increasingly harder to attract workers. 

The good news is that Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) is designing and testing a growing array of solutions for low-income workers to take the unfilled jobs in high-income countries facing broadening worker shortages. Co-creating approaches and tools that strengthen safe and efficient labor mobility and worker integration will be crucial to ensuring that new efforts can scale up into sustainable and effective migration programs that benefit all. Building effective and financially viable solutions will be key to reinforcing the sense of trust in a system that many voters and stakeholders currently perceive as broken. At the same time, it is crucial to scale structured coordination across countries of origin and destination: there is an undeniable need to develop infrastructure currently missing to prepare and source migrant workers and support them through the migration process. Based on evidence and learnings collected through the work carried out in various corridors and sectors, LaMP aims to address systemic issues, seeking to turn labor mobility into an opportunity – a choice for many – rather than an unpredictable journey with unclear outcomes.