MEPs are being assailed by campaigners from the European Youth Forum (YFJ), who are running around the European Parliament demanding that they sign a list of 11 pledges on issues from education to implementing to a youth job guarantee scheme.
The YFJ's petition includes well-known policy suggestions like ensuring equal access to education and the implementation of a more ambitious youth guarantee scheme to ensure apprenticeships or training for jobless youngsters.
There are some more controversial proposals too, including one allowing the EU to raise its taxes to fight youth unemployment, or encouraging member states to lower the voting age to 16.
YFJ, a platform of youth organisations, launched its Love Youth Future, campaign in the European Parliament on Tuesday (15 October). So far, they have only persuaded a handful of MEPs to sign up to the pledge, though many more are supportive, and the European Parliament president Martin Schulz supports the campaign via Twitter.
Youth unemployment on the EU's agenda
The oft-ignored youth campaigners have reason to believe that they will be heard this time. Concerns over unprecedented levels of youth unemployment have hit the news headlines since the financial crisis began, and topped the agenda of a meeting of EU heads of states earlier this year.
The latest Eurostat figures show youth unemployment at 23% across EU member states, but the picture is even gloomier when looking at the jobless rate of under 25's in some crisis-hit countries – 55.6% in Spain, and 63% in Greece, according to the European Commission.
Meeting in February, EU leaders agreed to launch an €8 billion youth employment initiative, which should be fully operational by 1 January 2014. They also agreed to provide financial support for member states to develop their own youth guarantee schemes, aimed at getting young people into employment, education or training within four months of being unemployed.
The youth guarantee scheme was endorsed by EU ministers in February 2013. But it depends heavily on €8 billion worth of EU funding, set aside in the EU’s long-term budget (MFF) that is still pending final approval.
Too little too late, argued MEP Jo Leinen. “We invested €160 billion in saving financial institutions. Shouldn’t we have more than six [billion] for the youth?” he asked at Love Youth Future event on Tuesday.
The European Parliament, meanwhile, has pushed its own approach to the initiatives. In a report presented in Parliament on Tuesday (15 October), watchdog organisation VoteWatch examined how MEPs voted on key youth policy initiatives such as boosting entrepreneurship, job mobility or traineeships, and supporting higher education, including a new ‘Erasmus for All’ programme.
“All of the forces in Parliament agree that the EU should support programmes on mobility in education and employment and most of the groups support Erasmus, so the parties share the aim to solve this issue,” says VoteWatch’s policy director Doru Frantescu. “But the views on how to tackle youth unemployment differ,” he added.
Indeed, the VoteWatch report report shows a classic left-right divide in Parliament, especially over employment policies. MEPs are divided over whether to invest in public infrastructure programmes or prioritise public sector debt reductions, that might help create jobs in the long run.
Unemployment and euroscepticism
With just over seven months to go to before the European Parliament elections in May 2014, youth unemployment could become a battleground issue. Politicians simply cannot shy away from the discussion, MEPs said in Tuesday’s debate.
Eider Gardiazábal Rubial, a Spanish socialist MEP who chairs a Parliamentary intergroup on youth issues, said “it is not only an economic challenge, it is a social one as well. We must offer young people the means to live an autonomous life.”
“We shouldn’t only talk about why young people don’t have any interest in the EU anymore,” YFJ’s Porcaro added. “We should identify what young people expect from us – institutions, parties, civil society. That is what our eleven pledges are about: education, employment.”
“A lot of young people blame Europe for the unemployment. It will be interesting to see whether they’ll vote for eurosceptic parties in large numbers,” political scientist Simon Hix told EurActiv in an earlier interview.
German socialist MEP Jo Leinen agreed, saying “euroscepticism will be at a high point in the next Parliament. Unemployment has big effects on the expectations many people have. I hope we don’t have too many extremist voices in the next Parliament.”
For policymakers, the worst case scenario is that youngsters fail to show up in May. Past EU elections have demonstrated that young voters are hard to mobilise, with voter turnout amongst voters aged 18 to 24 hitting at an all-time low of 29% at the last EU elections in 2009. And even if the the election campaign debates youth issues, it is not certain that turnout will rise.
But here too, youth activists have reason to hope that things will be different this time. Before the summer, the European Commission released a survey showing that 65% of voters below 30 were planning to vote in 2014.
Youth turnout has declined steadily in past seven EU elections, sliding to 29% in 2009 from around 33% in 2004.
But a survey released by the European Commission in 2013 showed 65% of eligible voters below the age of 30 planned to vote next year, with a particular rise among first-time voters.
If the predicted doubling of youth votes does happen, the question centres on whether they will give their support to the traditional parties or instead lean towards the extremes.
For more background on the upcoming EU elections, read our LinksDossier.
- 22-25 May 2014: European elections in all 28 member states
- 1 Nov. 2014: New European Commission takes office