Tuesday 4 December 2012

Youth Guarantees and Youth Unemployment

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.

Monday 3 December 2012

Youth Unemployment, Europe and Campaigning: Relaunching Europe Impressions

On Saturday I was at the Relaunching Europe event in Nottingham on Youth Unemployment, where I got to meet Hannes Swoboda, S&D Leader, and Glenis Willmott, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, who organised the event. It was an interesting conference, with debate jumping from local to national to European level, as well as debate on Labour as a party.

Youth unemployment is unfortunately a very live issue at the moment, and there were several deeply personal stories from people affected by unemployment, from the Oxford graduate unable to find a steady job 2 years after graduating (and with many friends in similar positions), to an unemployed Labour councillor who had been advised by her JobCentre to quit the council to help her job prospects. The big idea of youth guarantees (more of which tomorrow) would lend some EU help to reducing youth unemployment, but the very personal nature of unemployment means that any help must also have a strongly local character.

Employment and social protection are areas where the EU has very little influence and not much financial firepower. Attempts to help workers retrain and find new work under the Globalisation Fund, which is under severe budgetary pressure, shows how difficult it is for the EU to have an impact without the money necessary to act. Some of what the S&D can do is working on changing the single market rules to help employment - Glenis Willmott highlighted work on the new Public Procurement Directive to strengthen social and environmental criteria for public authorities when placing orders with businesses. The more abstract nature of EU work was reflected in the debates, however, as most of questions and panel discussions centred around making Labour more campaign-orientated and focusing on what could be done in universities and locally by counsels to boost employment.

All of this is important, but little explicit link was made between these local campaigns - or local party members - and engagement with the European party or European campaigns. Is there support for Labour party members not only to launch local campaigns, but also to try and launch grassroots European campaigns? What about the Youth Guarantee - there is a website dedicated to the Youth Guarantee, but it is well known locally in the party and are there ways for the local party to get involved in the campaign? Also, can Labour counsels get involved in the campaign and link up with local authorities in Austria and Finland, where such guarantees already exist to see what they can already do without EU funding (or just with PES/S&D support)?

There were a lot of interesting debates around unemployment on Saturday, but it still felt like there was an invisible wall between the discussions on action at a local and national level, and on action at a European level. The raw material for linking them together, getting local party members involved in European projects, and bringing Europe closer to citizens seems to be there, but they need to be drawn together. If Youth Guarantees are about bringing EU policy, national policy, business and unions together to enable young people to find their way into the workforce, then perhaps there also needs to be a stronger party version of pathways into participation on European campaigns and policy.