Cuts now, jobs later - Europe is abandoning a generation

At last, politicians are talking about youth unemployment, but their efforts don't go far enough.

Can Europe afford to ignore the needs of its younger generation? Youth disillusionment and unemployment are notable features of this economic era. In some EU youth unemployment is over thirty per cent. What are national politicians and supranational bodies doing about this? Recently we have heard a few weak promises about future policies. Yet austerity measures continue to reduce state spending and therefore employment and growth.

On 14 June, labour and finance ministers from Germany, Spain, France, and Italy met in Rome for a meeting titled "Jobs for Youth: Building Opportunities, Opening Paths". The Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, praised the conference for gathering the ministers in charge of state finances and budgets alongside their colleagues responsible for employment. Economic growth and job opportunities should be created through inter-governmental (and international) cooperation.

This shouldn't be any kind of political novelty, yet Letta suggested that "this is a distinctive day", and "a pride for us that Rome is the European capital city against youth unemployment". (Indeed, Rome is unfortunately the capital city of many actual young job seekers.)

The policy behind this "Jobs for Youth" plan is to promote small and medium businesses, in part through the European Investment Bank. Though it may have some effect in the long run, little was said on how to help people now. In fact, Italy's finance minister Fabrizio Saccomanni made clear there would be no turning away from austerity when he said: "the consolidation of states' finances is a prerequisite for policies against unemployment". The EU approach is that austerity and growth can be part of the same policy.

How this would contribute to the well-being of a fearful (and feared) European youth is not clear. The voices of young Europeans remain unheard. Unsurprisingly, some young people will vote for extremist and anti-establishment forces, and even reject the ideal of a European Union. One should wonder if "people" really are at the centre of the European elites' outlook.

The German prime minister, Angela Merkel, recently told the BBC that "mobility" is key, however unfair it might seem. Young Europeans should move where the jobs are. But how many European countries have flourishing job markets and high demand for labour? And which sectors of the economy? What should be done to help the "jobless" areas that will be deprived of a young and skilled workforce? Merkel's advice also misses the fact that migration for employment already takes place.

Increased migration and support for small businesses won't solve the problem alone. The young people of Europe need more than that to realise their dream of a better society, and to feel part of the EU project. For that, a range of public spending is needed, but instead many countries are reducing their funding of social security and education. A poor, young and angry labour force is a problem for any economic system, and it's hardly a route to prosperity for the European continent.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London

On your Fahrrad: The German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Getty.)

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle