"This pact is a great step forward. It's a political pact, but does not impose rules. This pact has the great virtue of allowing countries some leeway in the way they apply it,” said Celestino Corbacho, the Spanish immigration minister.

Managing migrants

The agreement enables legal immigration to be based on a state's needs and ability to accomodate people, while combating illegal immigration and ensuring that foreigners who do not have papers are removed.

EU nations would base legal immigration on workers or professionals whose skills are tailored to their particular labour needs, favouring those who would stay in their countries long-term.

The ministers also agreed to try to avoid handing out residency permits en masse. Italy and Spain have angered some of their partners by giving papers to some 700,000 people in recent years.

Refugees will be increasingly obliged to apply for asylum from outside, as about 220,000 people did last year, although the EU will strive to better channel aid to the countries they are seeking to flee.

Liam Byrne, Britain's immigration minister, said: "Getting a clear statement against mass regularisations is a very important line in the sand.

"The trick now is to turn ideas into action," he said, adding that he would head to Paris next week to talk about ways to rapidly implement parts of the pact, particularly on joint returns of illegal immigrants.

Defining 'skilled'

The ministers have struggled to define the notion of "highly skilled" workers, with a consensus forming on the idea that applicants would have to be earning 1.5 times the average salary in the state they hope to work in.

Recognised qualifications or five years experience would also be needed.

With their population growth in decline, EU member states are looking to foreign labour to fill certain jobs. But they are struggling to compete with the United States, which attracts roughly twice the number of skilled workers.

The Blue Card, which takes its name from the EU flag, blue with golden stars and whose name resonates with the US "green card", would entitle highly qualified third-country nationals to a series of rights in any EU nation.

But the idea has been vastly eased from when it was proposed by the European commission a year ago.

It will not allow those who are selected to move around as freely as first envisaged.
Indeed a person who qualifies would have to apply again should he or she wish to work in another EU country, with the same criteria applying once more.

"The Blue Card doesn't regulate access to national labour markets," Wolfgang Schaueble said, the German interior minister. "The expectations for the Blue Card have always been exaggerated."