EU law streamlines visa rules

New directive makes it easier for researchers to get EU entry permits

By | October 25, 2005

European Union nations must put in place a system that helps researchers get visas easier and more quickly, according to a bundle of new measures adopted by the European Council this month. The goal of the program is to make Europe a more attractive place for overseas scientists to work, officials said.

The package is the latest in a series of steps aimed at boosting the bloc's position in world research, spurred by fears that it is losing ground to the US and Asia. Other measures have included establishing a new European Research Council to stimulate basic research, and a proposal to double the budget for EU-funded science.

But the region also has to deal with a manpower problem, according to officials. "Basically, we need more researchers," said Antiona Mochan, spokeswoman for science and research at the European Commission, the EU body which proposes new legislation.

That shortfall needs to be approached on two levels, she said. First, more people need to be encouraged to chose science as a career within the EU, and second, the region needs to be more appealing to scientists from outside, she noted. "We don't want to poach scientists from elsewhere, but the idea is to allow a better circulation of ideas," Mochan told The Scientist.

The first part of the package is a directive—an EU law that member states are obligated to translate into national law by October 2007—which establishes a fast-track procedure for the admission of non-EU researchers.

Research organizations will play a big part in this process -- acting as hosts for researchers, establishing credentials, and acknowledging their involvement in a research project, according to the directive. Exactly which organizations will be accredited to take part in this process will be dealt with on a national level, Mochan said. "The practice is very different in each member state so it will be adopted differently in each one."

On the basis of such an agreement with a research organization, the immigration authorities of the host country will deliver a residence permit to the researcher in an accelerated procedure, the directive states. Researchers who are granted such permits will be on an equal footing with EU nationals in terms of social security and working conditions. These permits will also allow the researcher free movement within most EU member states to carry out their research project.

The directive also makes life easier for non-EU scientists already working within member states. It encourages EU countries to allow such researchers to submit applications for residence permits directly to the national authorities without having to return home first, and says that researchers who want to move between member states need not return to their country of origin to submit an application.

At the moment, Mochan explained, "if you have a South African scientist working in Italy, for example, he or she might find it hard to go to a conference in Spain. We've streamlined the process to allow them to move more freely. Now, he'll be able to arrange in Italy his travel to Spain."

Along with the directive, the EU also issued "recommendations" for member countries, which are not legally binding. The first suggests that EU countries anticipate the implementation of the directive by providing "immediately favourable conditions for the admission of third country nationals for research purposes."

The second recommendation encourages countries to streamline the issuing of short-term visas and multiple entry visas for researchers, and to work together to make the processes as similar as possible in each country.

John Marks, director of science and strategy for the European Science Foundation, agreed that Europe needed more scientists, but said that simplifying the visa process was only one step. "The visa is the first thing," he told The Scientist. "But then you have to offer real opportunities. Not only high pay, but career perspectives for them to do the research they want to do."

Other problems include different social security systems, methods of health insurance, and "all sorts of practical details" that make it hard for people to move from one country to another, Marks said.

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