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