Tajani: Europe needs an Erasmus programme for workers

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The European Commission wants to encourage young workers to gain education and skills in other countries, a sort of Erasmus programme for workers, Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani tells EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview.

Antonio Tajani is the commissioner in charge of Industry and Entrepreneurship. A former transport commissioner and MEP, he is a founding member along with Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia and has served as vice chairman of the European Peoples’ Party (EPP).

He spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Lenka Feren?áková.

An action plan for the European steel sector was introduced recently. Why was the steel sector chosen?

Under the umbrella of the industrial policy, there are many sectors which are mutually interlinked. They create a network together. Every sector is a brother of another sector, be it steel, automotive, construction. Without the automotive industry and construction it’s impossible to back the steel industry, without tourism it´s impossible to progress in the construction sector.

In recent years the steel sector has experienced a very difficult situation. The biggest problem is the overcapacity which is true not only for Europe, but it is a global problem. The current crisis is of a short-term nature. It is important to work with new ideas because the steel sector is crucial for our economy. For one year the European Commission was working with partners from the European Parliament, member states, unions and companies in the form of high-level group towards the common goal of creating this action plan. The European Council has welcomed the action plan during its June meeting.

What are the main components of the action plan?

The most crucial issues mentioned in the action plan are energy prices, the raw material price, trade policy and level playing field. In 2012, 11 new antidumping investigations on iron and steel products were initiated and one case has been brought to the WTO in Geneva. Measures in fair-trade policy are crucial because it is very difficult for the EU to compete with China and other countries. We pay attention to ETS impact, too. We would like to encourage young workers to gain education and skills in other countries with the help of EU and companies´ money, sort of an Erasmus programme for workers.

The steel sector can benefit from several state aid measures for innovation and research and development that contribute to the EU 2020 goals. There is no state aid allowed to increase production. To improve skills and ease restructuring companies can also utilise finances from structural funds, the European Social Fund [and] Globalisation Adjustment Fund. In support of innovation there is also Research Fund for Coal and Steel available.

Now we need to implement this action plan. After 12 months the high-level group will assess the plan implementation and we might change the action plan, bring new proposals, new ideas. Of course, it´s also important to have good cooperation with member countries because they implement the measures mentioned.

The ageing workforce in the steel industry is one of the problems mentioned in the action plan. How do you attract young people to fill the future skills gap?

Education is the most significant point here. In Podbrezová [Slovakia] and also in Linz [Austria] I visited steel companies which operate their own schools so the young workers are coming from the same company schools. This dual system with a comprehensive apprenticeship scheme is a good example how to move forward. Without good education it is not possible to increase the number of young workers. If you want more jobs for young people and fight against their unemployment, it is also important to put more money on the table.

At the last European Council meeting, the EU leaders adopted speeding up of the youth employment initiative and agreed to front-load €6 billion for it. But this is an aspirin to soothe the pain.

If you want a solution, we need strategies for jobs and growth; strategies that support the real economy; internal market industries; small- and medium-sized companies.

I think it is not wise for young people to aim for the London Stock Exchange or Wall Street because the jobs are in the real economy. It is also essential to have more young entrepreneurs where we try to bring new rules, less bureaucracy and easier access to finance. They can start as small entrepreneurs with two, three or five workers. This proves to be a good solution not only in my country, for example. We need young people, entrepreneurs with new ideas, not only civil servants.

The trade association Eurofer has published its own roadmap for a low-carbon Europe 2050. It concludes that the steel industry will be able to reduce its CO2 emissions by 15 % compared to 2010 levels. The EU objectives are much more ambitious…

I know the Eurofer position very well. Action against climate change is an EU flagship initiative. Of course, we need a global agreement with other countries if we want to beat climate change. For 2020, the EU has committed to reduce its emissions to 20% below 1990 levels. It´s not easy for companies but it’s a good target.

However, I am totally against a new, more ambitious target because it brings a risk that a lot of companies will shift their production outside, to China, Ukraine or Russia. For the EU this would mean more unemployment, more pollution and no solution for climate change.

For this we need an ambitious and possible target. With an impossible target we will kill our own industry. We need strong environmental action with a possible target.

You mentioned high energy costs which are around 40% of the operating cost in steelmaking. They vary significantly even among member countries. For example, electricity prices for industry in Slovakia are among the highest within the EU. Do you somehow reflect this kind of differences in the measures planned?

We need to work in favour of an efficient internal energy market. This will pave the way for more competition and a better price of energy for European companies, not only in the steel sector.

The European Commission is currently working on an analysis of the composition of energy prices in member states to check the burden of energy costs for the industry. We will present the study before 2014 because its results will be addressed at the European Council meeting in February 2014.

At the same time, it is important to examine the shale gas situation. The United States has progressed a lot on this area and it proved to be a good solution for US companies’ competitiveness. I am neutral on shale gas but I think it´s important to know whether it might be a solution for our companies how to reduce energy prices or not.

You have set a goal to increase the industrial share in the EU’s GDP to 20 % by 2020. Slovakia is doing well in this regard. What actions will you bring forward to achieve this goal?

Yes, Slovakia and many other EU countries are over this target. I think it is achievable for every EU country. Slovakia itself is very important for our industrial policy. Your government support is crucial for my action on industrial policy and the European Industrial Compact which will be the brother of Fiscal Compact. I am working for this goal with industrial ministers and I hope it will be approved at the February summit next year. I am optimistic about this. 

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