The economic crisis has doubled the unemployment rate among Europe's youth. The EU is urgently looking for solutions, but it's the member states that will have to act.
Araceli Rubio Perera, a young Spanish woman, has been unable to find work at home. In February she travelled to Brussels to consider the offers from companies represented at a European job fair.
"I am very satisfied by what I've seen so far - there are many companies here, not just from Belgium but also from France and Great Britain," she said at the time. "There are many possibilities, not just for people with job experience but also for those people who, like me, are just starting out."
The job fairs in Brussels and other European cities are organized by the European Commission (EC), and job searches abroad are supported by EURES, the European online job site that lists employment opportunities from all over the continent. But what the EC has to offer is merely a drop in the bucket - cross-border job searches are still the exception. Only three percent of all EU citizens permanently work abroad, according to statistics authority Eurostat.
Structural reforms are necessary
Karl Brenke, an expert on the labor market with the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin (DIW), said significant progress in the fight against youth unemployment will only be possible with structural reforms in the member states. Even before the financial crisis, the unemployment rate among people under the age of 25 was twice as high as among the older generation in some parts of Europe.
Brenke said part of the problem was the theoretical education that schools offer, with no training taking place in the workplace. "In order to get a handle on these structural problems with unemployed youth, I think we need to make changes to the vocational training in [Europe's] crisis countries, and also in Eastern Europe and parts of Scandinavia," he said. "Young people need to benefit from a stronger practical education."
Spainhas already begun introducing a dual education system consisting of parallel training in schools and the workplace. Other countries like Italy, Portugal and Greece must follow suit, Brenke told DW. He said young people needed easier access to the job market. In countries like Italy, for example, rigid employment laws have made this difficult.
EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy last week called on EU heads of state to do more to address youth unemployment. The EU wants to push through a "job guarantee" for European youth: four months after completing school or university, at the latest, every young person should have a job or a spot in a training program.
The EU Commission suggested this course of action in February, but the practical implementation has so far been slow. Brenke believes that the political will in Europe's hardest hit countries was necessary before anything would happen.
"It's possible, of course, to push youth in the direction of a practical education through various training programs, but these are not the big solutions," he said.
A German model for Europe?
In the coming years, the EU expects to make 6 billion euros ($7.8 billion) available for special programs to address youth unemployment, to launch initiatives and investments in member states. How the funds will be distributed is set to be a topic of discussion in July when Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with Europe's labor ministers and employment agencies in Berlin.
"Therefore, when the money becomes available at the end of the year, we won't just sit there and have everyone go at it alone," said Merkel at the latest EU summit. She said it was important "to discuss how to quickly implement the plan. What can be learned from the countries that currently find themselves in a good situation?"
Merkel went on to compare the current job situation in Europe to East Germany in the early 1990s, after reunification, when unemployment figures were similarly high. She said Germany was willing to pass on the experience gained during those years.
'Social fabric is being destroyed'
According to Eurostat, roughly six million people under the age of 25 are unemployed in the EU. In February, the unemployment rate for this segment of the population was at 23.5 percent, twice that of people over 25, which was at 10.9 percent.
At 59 percent, Greece's youth unemployment figures are the highest. In Spain, every second young person is without a job. And in 12 of the 27 EU member states, the youth unemployment rate sits at over 25 percent.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, calls it a "dramatic" problem for Europe. "In a number of EU countries, this problem has been expressed in ways that can lead to the destruction of the social fabric. When some countries are seeing 50 percent unemployment rates among the youth, some of whom are highly qualified and are losing their future chances because of a crisis they weren't responsible for, this is a problem that we should resolve now, and not in the long term," he said at a press conference in Brussels. It's not just Europe's banks that are important, it's also the current young generation, he added.
DIW's Brenke said the danger is that if the high unemployment continues, it could lead to resignation among Europe's youth.
"They could end up in a rut, unable to see the opportunities and giving up on an education," he said. "Of course, they could also choose to emigrate."
The main problem: a shrinking economy
Brenke pointed out that the main problem was the severe economic crisis throughout much of Europe. New jobs and places in training programs would only become available when this problem was overcome. "The crisis is the number one problem," he said.
This analysis is shared by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who since March has spoken repeatedly in favor of boosting the economy with state intervention, possibly financed by new debt.
"Let's be honest: we need short-term measures to facilitate economic growth," he told the European Parliament. "The growth pact is insufficient and has not been put into action quickly enough. Social issues have not been adequately addressed. We must be careful."
A year ago, EU leaders agreed on a growth pact of 120 billion euros, though since then not much has happened. Barroso has called on leaders to at least free up the six billion euros earmarked for programs tackling youth unemployment.
"The European Commission very quickly proposed measures to tackle youth unemployment. This included six billion euros at the February summit," he said. "Now, the Council and Parliament must decide quickly, so that we can quickly deliver results. I hope we are then able to begin new things at the national and European level that will give youth hope."
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