More than 5.5 million people below the age of 25 are unemployed in the EU right now. That’s a veritable army of young people marching toward a pretty unappealing future, where financial security and dependable employment will be rare (indeed, a Gallup poll we commissioned earlier this year suggests that pessimism about the future for young people in Europe is currently at an all-time high). At a summit of European leaders in Berlin earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called youth unemployment “perhaps the most pressing problem facing Europe at the present time”.
It’s a sign of just how seriously European leaders are taking this problem that, less than six months since the summit in Berlin, another big summit on youth unemployment took place this week hosted in Paris by French President François Hollande. European heads of government and state met with employment and welfare ministers to discuss the best way to spend the 6 billion euros set aside by the EU to fight youth unemployment in 2014 and 2015.
But are these efforts too little, too late? We had a video question sent in by Nastja from Slovenia, who wanted to know if the measures planned by the EU and national governments will really go far enough to tackle the problem of high youth unemployment.
To get a reaction, we spoke earlier this week to Joan Burton, the Irish Minister for Social Protection and a member of the social democratic Labour Party (and you can show your support for Minister Burton – or her critics – in Debating Europe Vote 2014). How would she respond to Nastja?
I think her concerns are understandable, because right throughout Europe we’ve got too many young people who are unemployed and not in education or training… What I can say is that there is an understanding among European leaders – and certainly among the employment ministers and social welfare ministers who deal with it every day – that youth unemployment really is the most important issue facing the EU at the moment… I attended, yesterday, a very large meeting in Paris of employment ministers and the prime ministers and heads of state of countries throughout Europe, and the meeting was really well-attended…
The European Union will produce a plan, and that of course will include costings – which I certainly hope could be a little bit stronger – by the end of this year, and the heads of state will sign-off on it in December. What I would be concerned about is that every country in Europe moves to implement the plan from January 1st onwards. It’s a complex plan, because it involves finding an individual pathway for each young person, which could mean further education, it could mean more training, it could mean in-work experience, or it could be help from employment services, including EURES [the European Employment Service], to find vacancies that are appropriate for the young person.
And, really, from January 1st, everybody involved in both welfare and employment services in Europe is going to have to work hard to implement this plan. What I hope is that, in terms of the funding and the support of the European Commission, there isn’t too much red tape that slows down the implementation of the plan, because, of course, in the past this has been a difficulty. And that was one of the issues discussed very strongly yesterday by the heads of state and by the employment ministers.
We’ve had many comments sent in from readers who blame high youth unemployment on austerity policies undertaken by European governments since the start of the crisis. One commenter, Fer, argued that austerity was making social welfare systems less sustainable, not more.
99% of the social models in Europe are not sustainable; our pensions, our health systems, our expenditure… So, austerity is just like putting extra petrol into the fire… It wont help, but it will burn quicker…
As the minister responsible for Ireland’s social welfare system, how would Joan Burton respond to these comments?
The spending by European states on social welfare to people who have lost their jobs, to people who have retired, to people who are on lower income – maybe in work but on low wages – is an enormous spend into each European economy. In most European states, welfare accounts for 25 to 40 per cent of the total spend by governments. Now, if you were to withdraw that spending, the shock to the system and the reduction of the circulation of money into the economies would be really very counter-productive. And, in fact, we’ve seen with countries in the periphery with extreme difficulties, like Greece, that the withdrawal of public employment and the slashing of social welfare benefits has caused a huge contraction in the economy… And we don’t just have European economists saying this, we have Nobel prize-winners in the US like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman saying it.
Here in Ireland, for example, we spend quite a lot of our budget on pensions for older people. But that money spent on pensions in Ireland – or in Greece, Spain or France – is then spent locally by those older people in their local villages, shops and towns, so it really acts to circulate money into the economy.
Does the European welfare model needs reforms? Yes, I do think it does. And I think those reforms carry back into education, because, for instance, in almost every country in Europe now there’s a shortage of people to work both at entry-level, mid-level and at very advanced level in the ICT sector. The same is true in relation to areas like pharmaceuticals and medical devices, and the health services generally. So, we have to have a Social Europe, where the delivery of public services is, in my view, tremendously important – but where we also need to modernise it so it reflects what has happened in a globalised economy.