Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday hosts EU talks on felling sky-high youth unemployment less than three months before German elections after coming under fire for championing austere spending cuts and helping to create a “lost generation”.
Days after EU leaders okayed up to eight billion euros ($10.4 billion) for initiatives to help get the region’s 5.6 million jobless under 25-year-olds into work, Merkel will gather leaders and labour ministers in Berlin to thrash out the ways and means.
Merkel, whose conservatives have been cruising high in the polls, has shifted tone on fighting Europe’s financial woes in recent months, tempering her earlier insistence on budgetary rigour with an emphasis on growth.
And while she began co-opting major social policies from the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) years ago, she has hardly missed a chance of late to warn that if Europe fails to foster more growth, it faces losing a whole generation.
Hard on the heels of a warning by US President Barack Obama on his Berlin visit this month that a change of tack was needed to avoid just that, Merkel said last week that Europe’s young people were “owed” chances for the future.
“And we particularly owe them it because they, the youth, are in no way to blame for the failures which have arisen in recent years,” she said in the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
French President Francois Hollande and EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso are due at the talks, which, according to a German government spokesman, will focus on “concrete measures” and “an exchange of best practices”.
“We want to share particular national experiences with each other — and Germany has broad experience from the time of German reunification — on advancing youth employment, and identify the most promising measures,” Merkel said.
Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark have experience to share on their systems of offering youngsters an apprenticeship at a company that combines vocational education, she added.
EU leaders agreed in Brussels Friday that the funding could be used from January to promote work placement programmes and help job seekers find work in other parts of the EU, although critics have called the amount a mere “drop in the ocean”.
The EU executive had announced in February its seven-year plan to ensure that young people are guaranteed either training, further education or employment within four months of leaving school.
Twice bailed-out Greece leads the way, with youth unemployment having reached more than 62 percent in April, but young adults in Spain, Portugal and Italy are also badly affected, while Germany struggles with a skilled labour shortage.
In Germany, some 34,000 apprenticeships in industry and trade were still unfilled shortly before programmes were due to begin, the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), announced earlier this month.
DIHK Vice President Achim Drecks warned against too-high expectations. “When you speak of a ‘guarantee’ (of training, jobs or education), you hamper the acceptance of Europe” if it is not met, he told reporters.
But he said the jobs conference showed concern, after Germany and in particular Merkel have been skewered over their anti-crisis policies by angry protesters in the likes of Greece and Spain.
Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, said the conference had no bearing on the campaign for September 22 elections in which Merkel is seeking a third term — but also did her no harm.
“Germans are basically interested in what is happening here. They would like to be protected from the effects of the crisis.
“When Mrs Merkel then says ‘we’re giving money to fight youth unemployment in poor or economically weak countries…’ then they’ll say ‘as long as I don’t pay individually, that’s OK’ and Mrs Merkel is seen as a woman who only wants to do good.
“And who can have anything against that?” he said.
Her chief SPD rival Peer Steinbrueck heaped some of the blame for Europe’s high youth unemployment on what he called Merkel’s “one-sided” focus on austerity, criticising a “vicious circle of savings and growth setbacks”.
But labour market expert Karl Brenke, of the German Institute for Economic Research, cautioned against “disproportionately high” expectations over the migration of jobless youngsters to regions where labour is needed.
“The first thing to do isn’t to carry out action at the European level but to think about how at national level one can organise more solid training,” he said. – AFP