Berlin notebook: a placebo for Europe’s youth


Angela Merkel has invited European labour ministers to come to Berlin and discuss youth unemployment. This is despite last week’s European summit having youth unemployment as a central issue - but Berlin, of course, is the new Brussels. (And what about Vilnius? After all, Lithuania has just taken over the EU presidency.) What better evidence could there be that the EU Summit was clearly a low profile gathering, showing a lack of both ambition and answers.

Factually, the EU’s Youth Employment Initiative (YEI), which aims to support young people in regions with a youth unemployment rate above 25 percent, will become fully operational by January 2014, and the €8 billion allocated to this in the multi-annual budget will be frontloaded in 2014-2015).

The EU will promote mobility among young job-seekers through the “Your First EURES Job” programme, which aims to help some 5,000 people fill job vacancies throughout the EU. The Union will also support high-quality apprenticeships and work-based learning through the launch of the so-called “European Alliance for Apprenticeships.”

So what will the additional meeting in Berlin add? This is, indeed, the moment for additional sweeties and gifts from Germany, which is heading for elections and does not need negative headlines from European capitals (which might destroy the rosy climate which is reigning in the country). Today’s summit is about comparing “best practices” and the innovation is that the heads of the national employment agencies are also invited.

The youth unemployment situation has deteriorated dramatically in the European South, and leaders have been calling for action. In March 2013, nearly 40 percent of under-25s in Portugal were jobless; youth unemployment in Spain is above 57 percent, as layoffs continue in a deep recession; and in Greece youth unemployment shot up to a record 64 percent in February (by comparison, it was below 8 percent for Germany and Austria). Germany, wary of a backlash as many citizens in crisis-hit European countries blame it for austerity, has taken steps to tackle unemployment: for instance by striking bilateral deals with Spain and Portugal. 

The interesting point about the format at today's meeting is that it is in line with the new style of Merkel’s European policy: transnational rather than supranational, in other words country based not Commission based, with the power centre clearly being in Berlin. Merkel’s European style is to string together national governments, as well as national parliaments or national banking authorities (as we have seen last week when agreeing on the SRM of banking union), rather than merging (more) competence on the European level. A huge transnational cooperation net seems to be the new formula, with national legitimacy trumping European legitimacy. Politics is national again, so the mantra runs, but it needs to be better coordinated. “Everybody is responsible for his/her own” is the subtext of this message.

On the one hand this effort to get heads of European governments to take common responsibility for youth unemployment is to be welcomed; on the other hand one can be concerned about the creeping dismantling of the EU’s overall institutional frame.

There will probably be some signs of German generosity after the meeting. Berlin will most likely make an offer to ministers from the European South, to send some of their young people to Germany for vocational training positions: the new magic word is Duales Ausbildungssystem, the new German Exportschlager. “We will train your youngsters” is the offer (and keep them if they are good, could be the subtext), but we are not going to write any cheques. On Monday, SPIEGEL online had the headline news that Germany is the place to be - not only for vocational training, but also for the best European brains who want to study: Greece’s best baccalaureate decided to go to Germany.

Obviously, Europe is about free movement of people, and cross-European labour mobility is essential. But it shouldn’t be a one-way-street for European youngsters heading towards Germany. Howcan the Southern countries redress, and find the way back to growth, if their best engineering brains migrate to, say, Stuttgart's automobile county? This can only work if we start to understand euroland as one aggregated economy, and stop playing “national” economies, one against the other.

71 percent of Europeans think that vocational education and training (VET) has a positive image in their country, and overwhelmingly believe that VET is relevant (82 percent say that people in vocational education and training acquire skills that are needed by employers). More than half (55 percent) believe that VET leads to jobs which are well paid, with 72 percent of respondents saying it offers good career opportunities. 83 percent say VET contributes positively to the economy of their country.

However, the problem seems to be that for introducing Duales Ausbildungssystem you also need a modern industrial sector similar to Germany, with a homogeneous economic geography, good infrastructure across the country, and an extensive Mittelstand (which is the biggest provider of trainee positions for young people). The European South is far away from such a situation, which cannot be invented overnight.

So is the whole talk about Duales Ausbildungssytem only a placebo?



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