Youth unemployment is a serious problem across recession-hit Europe. In each country there is increasing concern that the crisis is producing a lost generation denied the opportunity to get into the workforce, and of a brain drain as people educated and trained at home cannot find that economic opportunity once promised to them.
Last weekend youth unemployment was the topic of a Relaunching Europe conference organised by UK Labour and the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. I went along to the conference, and I had the opportunity to talk to Hannes Swoboda, leader of the S&D group, and Glenis Willmott, the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.
Youth Guarantees, EU budget and joint campaigning
From the Party of European Socialists Conference in September, the Youth Guarantee was clearly the centrepiece of the PES's policy on youth unemployment: €10 billion Euro from the EU budget to help guarantee jobs and training for young people. But how would that work, and what would the money be spent on?
Hannes pointed to his own experience with Youth Guarantees in Vienna, where a collaboration between local government, unions and business could link unemployed young people with opportunities in work and training if they had been unemployed for a certain amount of time after leaving education. The idea for Member State youth guarantees supported by EU money (the €10 billion would come from the European Structural Funds), with the EU facilitating the exchange of expertise from countries like Austria and Finland who already have guarantees in place. Funding for education and European programmes such as Erasmus was also highlighted by Hannes, who said that the increasing centrality of mobility to the workforce underlined the importance of the programme.
With €10 billion the proposed price tag, the EU budget would clearly be an issue. Labour is behind the youth guarantee with its proposed jobs fund as its version of the national guarantee, but Glenis had to defend Labour's EU budget position. She said that Labour's aim is to shift the focus from CAP spending towards investment and guarantees like the youth guarantee. However, with CAP, rebates and cohesion backed by national vetoes and with the European Parliament as the sole defender of investment programmes under the budget (some of which are already under threat), I can't see how Labour's rationale for a real terms cut in the EU budget will achieve this. Shifting money in the European Structural Funds to a new project was always going to be difficult in itself, but winning EU funding for youth guarantees in a climate of budget cuts is going to be an uphill struggle. Glenis and Hannes made the argument that the Member States are hypocritical when it comes to wasteful spending, with offices for the European Patent system shared between Britain, France and Germany. I agree, but sadly this doesn't change the voting situation.
So given these divisions would there be much of a pan-European election campaign for the PES and Labour in 2014? What would the effect of a PES presidental candidate for the Commission be and will there be a common manifesto? Glenis reflected on the last campaign, saying that the last common manifesto didn't get much press attention, and that the lack of PES candidate for the Commission presidency was a handicap when it came to electing the Commission - "why were we [Labour] supporting a conservative candidate [Barroso]?". She seemed optimistic about PES cohesion and the manifesto for the next campaign, given the anti-austerity stance of the party as a whole (Labour agrees with "about 80%" of S&D positions). For Hannes, while the PES will be putting forward a candidate, no candidate will be able to have name recognition and appeal across all Member States.
I understand the caution over the presidential candidate - the lack of appeal for a single candidate across 27 or 28 Member States is part of why I favour a parliamentary Europe - but with the primaries being held over winter 2013, and the caution in the air over how to use a candidate in the election, it feels as if there's a real possibility that the PES could not make the most of an electoral asset out of fear. The pro-European left desperately wants to make it clear that current European policy is the fault of the Coservatives in power, but it will hard to do that at election time if they're not bold about putting up an alternative vision with alternative candidates.