Reuters International

Migrants carry their belongings as they walk towards the Austrian border in Nickelsdorf from Hegyeshalom, Hungary September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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By Francesco Guarascio

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union executive proposed easing access on Tuesday to the EU job market for qualified foreigners to offer legal paths to Europe rather than irregular immigration and to fill skills gaps in the labour force.

The European Commission wants to reinvigorate its Blue Card scheme - akin to the U.S. Green Card - which has failed to gain widespread use over the past four years. Fewer than 14,000 were granted last year, nearly all of them by Germany.

At the same time, Germany took in most of the 1.3 million refugees and migrants who reached Europe, mostly via smuggling routes. The influx triggered bitter spats among EU states on how to handle the people and calls to promote legal ways to Europe.

As well as lowering the minimum salary that jobs must offer before being open to Blue Card applicants, the proposals would extend eligibility to some of those who have arrived irregularly in Europe and are now seeking asylum.

"Early and effective integration of third-country nationals is key to making migration a benefit for the economy and cohesion of our society," Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said.

"At the same time, we have to better equip our systems to deal with labour market and skills shortages in the future."

The scheme is aimed at highly qualified workers who get a job offer in the EU, with the minimum duration of the contract halved to 6 months from 12. Britain, which will hold a national referendum on June 23 on whether to leave the 28-nation bloc, does not take part in the system. Nor do Ireland and Denmark.

The Commission wants to lower the salary threshold for the scheme to make more jobs available. It could go as low as an EU member state's national average wage, or to just 80 percent of that for recent graduates or professionals in sectors suffering from labour shortages. At present, Blue Cards are only issued to skilled professionals earning 50 percent more than the average.

EU states would still be allowed to decide how many people they want allow under the scheme, which would also be extended to refugees if they can prove professional qualifications.

The scheme offers fast-track access to permanent residence and Brussels also wants to make travelling easier for holders.

The Commission said the scheme would benefit the bloc's economy. It said some 20 million foreigners were legally resident in the EU at present, some four percent of the bloc's population. But migrants - especially women - saw considerably lower employment rates compared to host country nationals.

"The short-term impact on growth is mainly driven by additional spending, while labour market participation is expected to be key in determining the impact in the medium to long term," the Commission said, estimating a revamped Blue Card could add 0.2 percent to the bloc's economic growth in 2017.

Brussels said in November the estimated arrival of some 3 million migrants in Europe in 2015-2017 would help economic growth if the people are well integrated into the workforce.

Austria's central bank on Monday has cut growth forecasts for the country for this year and next, partly because a decision to take in fewer asylum seekers means the stimulus from public spending on them will be smaller.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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