The EU's continuing credibility currently hinges on the answer to the following question: Will the European Council be able to come up with practical responses to the pressing, but long-overlooked, problem of youth unemployment in Europe at its meeting on 27 June?
At the insistence of the European Parliament and some of the Member States, the issue of youth unemployment has been placed on the agenda for that meeting. Angela Merkel and François Hollande have also called a special summit to address the issue on 3 July in Berlin. That is all well and good, and is certainly more encouraging than the deafening silence there has been over the last few years. But it is not enough. The time for fine words has passed: for the last three years we have looked on as, month after month, youth unemployment has continued to shoot up in various Member States -- as if it were somehow unavoidable, a 'collateral effect' of the crisis, just one statistic among many.
But it is not just a statistic. What is at stake here is the future of an entire generation of Europeans, and thus the future of Europe itself. Because the European Union has no future if today's young people -- who will be the adults of tomorrow -- no longer believe in it. If they feel that our institutions are incapable of providing them with the sense of hope, of having a future and of being dealt a fair hand that they are currently lacking. And anyone who thinks that European integration is an irreversible process is wrong. No process is irreversible, and all democratic projects are dependent on public consent. If that consent were to disappear, further cooperation would be difficult.
It is easy to see why young people are disillusioned with the European Union, as they are being made to pay a heavy price, in the form of reduced life chances, for a crisis that is not their fault. It would be scandalous for us to just stand by and do nothing as a 'lost generation' forms in our midst, on what is the world's richest continent. I have repeated time and again -- including to the EU heads of state and government -- a telling question put to me by a young Spanish woman last year in Madrid, which I cannot get out of my mind. That question was: 'You managed to find EUR 700 billion to bail out the banks, so why can't you find some money for us?' Surely the time has come for us to acknowledge that young people are at least as systemically important as the banks. This is something that we cannot put off. Hard and fast decisions need to be taken at the summit on 27 June, and those decisions need to be acted on without delay. If this is not done, the situation will continue to deteriorate. So here are some of the solutions that the European Parliament has put forward -- yet again -- in the run-up to the summit on 27 June.
In the EU budget for 2014-2020, EUR 6 billion will be earmarked for action to combat youth unemployment. This is a positive sign, but, in practice, how much can be achieved with 6 billion spread out over seven years and 27 countries? Very little. So the European Parliament is proposing that the money should be front-loaded (i.e. brought to bear at the start of the period) so that it will have an immediate effect, following which additional funding could be provided if and when necessary.
The Youth Guarantee, which has already been approved by the 27 EU ministers for employment and social affairs, needs to be written into the law of each Member State at the earliest opportunity. Under this scheme, young people will have the guarantee of being offered a job, apprenticeship or traineeship or the opportunity to continue their education or training within four months of leaving education or becoming unemployed. Given the current situation, it is important for that guarantee to be backed up by the law.
In general, though, the best way of combating youth unemployment is to focus on growth. But how, exactly? By, for example, stimulating investment that will generate jobs for young people. And where will the money come from? From all available sources, including the financial transaction tax and action to put a stop to tax evasion and close down tax havens. If social justice is to mean anything, bankers and insurers need to play a part in securing our children's future.
I will be in Madrid on 4 and 5 July, straight after having attended the youth unemployment summit in Berlin. In Madrid, I will be meeting the same young people who last year asked me what we proposed to do for them, now that we had bailed out the banks. And this time, I would like to be able to give them an answer.