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Belgium takes steps towards optimizing the Single Permit Process

Jo Antoons, Managing Partner, and Wout Van Doren, Associate, Fragomen

In January 2019, Belgium implemented the EU Single Permit Directive for non-EU citizens seeking to work in the country for more than 90 days. The Single Permit combines both work and residence authorization into one document issued through a single application procedure. The introduction of the Single Permit Directive represented a significant change to Belgium’s economic migration model. AmCham Belgium has dedicated articles to the introduction of the Single Permit, the subsequent challenges caused by the single application procedure, and the diverging policies for economic migration in the three competent regions in Belgium.

As previously reported, the introduction of the Single Permit represented a step forward. However, the business community continues to face substantial challenges due to lengthy procedures and the lack of legal certainty.

The Single Permit application requires both work and residence authorizations to be approved before non-EU nationals can start their employment in Belgium. The average total processing time in 2019 was three to four months and sometimes even longer. Much of the prospective talent was unable or unwilling to wait out the long approval period, which resulted in companies losing potential new hires who were needed to meet critical business needs. Renewal applications were not exempt from these challenges, as non-EU nationals awaiting approval of their pending Single Permit renewal application are obliged to cease employment activity to avoid the risk of non-compliance from continuing to work during the interim.

Both regional and federal governments were aware of the challenging situation created by long processing times. However, the measures taken thus far to address these issues have been unsatisfactory and created legal uncertainty, in part due to the different approaches taken by the respective regional authorities.

In collaboration with AmCham Belgium, business organizations and large corporations, Fragomen presented a memorandum to the respective governments highlighting issues with the current system. We are pleased to share the recent announcements from the regional and federal governments that address a number of these issues:

  • The implementation of a policy change on renewal applications;
  • The rollout of a digital platform;
  • An intention to make further policy changes; and
  • A personnel increase within the Federal Immigration Office.

POLICY CHANGE ENSURING WORK RIGHTS DURING SINGLE PERMIT RENEWAL PROCESS

policy change has been implemented with local municipalities instructed to ensure working rights during the Single Permit renewal process. As of January 29, 2020, Single Permit renewal applicants no longer require approval from the Federal Immigration Office to continue working. Approval by the Regional Employment Authority (first stage of the process) is considered sufficient. The same expedited process applies to applicants for a Single Permit renewal due to a change of employer. Upon approval of the Single Permit renewal application by the Regional Employment Authority, applicants can now obtain a temporary residence document (Annex 49) from their local town hall, allowing access to the Belgian labor market. As a result of this policy change, lead times with the Federal Immigration Office will no longer delay work rights for the Single Permit holders concerned, and situations where renewal applicants are obliged to cease their work activity can be avoided.

Discussions to expand the policy change to some categories of foreign nationals who apply for an initial Single Permit are ongoing. These include foreign nationals residing in Belgium who want to change their residence status to an employment-based status (e.g. holders of student visas who subsequently find a job in Belgium), foreign nationals residing in another EU Member State and visa-exempt nationals (e.g. US citizens) arriving in Belgium. Such a measure would secure the attraction and retention of talent that is already legally in Belgium or in the EU and wants to integrate into the local labor market.

Challenges remain for foreign workers whose residency in Belgium is covered by a temporary residence document (Annex 49), as this does not allow travel in and out of Belgium. Visa-exempt nationals such as US citizens still benefit from the right to visa-free travel up to 90 days, however there is a lack of clarity. To ensure legal certainty, it would be preferable for internal instructions to be transposed into legislation – including assurances that any interruptions to the right of residence caused by processing delays would not influence eligibility for long-term residence status or Belgian nationality.

SINGLE DIGITAL APPLICATION PLATFORM

The rollout of a single digital application platform has also been announced. The Flemish Region is taking the lead in this endeavor. Applications can already be submitted by e-mail instead of by registered mail, and as of March 1, 2020,renewal applications submitted in Flanders can be made through the platform. The expectation is that, in the Spring of 2021, a fully integrated digital platform will be operational to link regional and federal immigration and social security services. This digital platform should include transfer of data, fast uploading and storage of documents and automated status updates to all relevant stakeholders.

ACCREDITED SPONSORSHIP SCHEME

Another proposal launched by the Flemish Government is the application of a scheme of accredited sponsorship. Recognized employers would benefit from expedited processing and simplified document requirements, similar to the system already in place in the Netherlands.

PERSONNEL INCREASE

At the federal level, a 25% increase in personnel at the Labor Migration Department of the Federal Immigration Office was announced. The objective is to reduce the processing time from eight weeks to two weeks.

WAY FORWARD

It is positive to see that the Belgian Government has proposed changes that directly address a number of the issues raised by key stakeholders. However, a number of suggestions for the further improvement of the Single Permit process remain unaddressed. Noteworthy are:

  • Guaranteed total lead times that are competitive compared to neighboring countries;
  • The elimination of unnecessary administrative steps at the local municipalities; and
  • The design of a flexible work permit scheme for foreign nationals working partially in Belgium without residing here.

Going beyond the Single Permit procedure as such, a number of other policy proposals to win the war for talent remain highly pertinent, such as the creation of a Welcome Desk centralizing all administrative steps associated with relocation to Belgium in a welcoming and client-oriented atmosphere.

About the authors

Jo Antoons, Attorney and Managing Partner, Fragomen

Jo is responsible for managing corporate immigration compliance and advisory work for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. You can contact her at: JAntoons@Fragomen.com.

Wout Van Doren, Associate and Attorney, Fragomen

Wout works with the Belgian Inbound team assisting corporate clients with their corporate migration needs and compliance and is also responsible for the Private Client Practice in Belgium. You can contact him at: wout.vandoren@fragomen.com.