‘No Country for Young Men’ Takes on EU Presidency

james-kilcourse-2012-2015-modified‘The Irish Presidency will prioritise the issue of youth unemployment. With over 20% of the EU’s young people experiencing unemployment, this has to be our priority. We will push for a comprehensive EU approach to tackling this problem, starting with the Youth Employment Package. In particular, we aim to get consensus on the principles of the Youth Guarantee.’

This statement was made on 17 December 2012 by the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, as he outlined the agenda of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The motto of the Presidency is ‘Stability, Jobs, Growth’, which is hardly surprising given that Ireland has suffered a drastic decline in economic output and employment since 2008 and has been an EU-IMF programme country since November 2010.

Eamon Gilmore is also the leader of the Labour Party, which is the smaller of the two parties in the coalition government. The other party is the centre-right Fine Gael party, led by An Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny. Since coming to power in February 2011, the coalition government – or the ‘Government of National Recovery’ – has been diligently carrying out the fiscal consolidation that is demanded of it by the EU-IMF-ECB troika. Ireland has met all of its fiscal targets and is viewed as the “poster child” of the European states currently implementing adjustment programmes.

Despite Ireland’s positive image among its European partners, austerity has hurt Irish society. The general unemployment rate is hovering at 15%, while the level of youth unemployment is one of the worst in Europe. In 2012, approximately 34% of 15-24 year olds in Ireland were unemployed according to official figures. Of these, 41% had been out of work for more than one year. The proportion of young NEETs (Not in employment, education or training) is also among the highest in the EU at 22%.

These figures do not take into consideration the drastic increase in emigration, which has always served as a pressure valve in times of crisis in Ireland. Almost 200,000 people aged between 15 and 29 have left Ireland since the crisis struck in 2008 and a third of Irish students now believe that they have no future in the country. Aside from the fact that this brain drain will have long-term economic repercussions, it is also affecting the fabric of Irish society and is a traumatic return to the days when Irish families raised their children only to send them abroad once they reached working age. Sadly, the current cohort of students and recent graduates in Ireland has already been labelled ‘Generation Emigration’.

The Government has launched a number of measures to support the unemployed and to keep them close to the labour market. The most notable of these is JobBridge, which provides 6,000 work experience placements for six to nine month periods. Another that was launched in December 2012 is the Momentum programme. This aims to provide the long-term unemployed with new skills in order to access work in sectors of the economy where there are job opportunities e.g. ICT, digital media, healthcare and food processing. €4.2 million of the total spend of €20 million will allow for 1,500 new places in education and training for under-25s. It is too early to tell if this programme will be a success but it does seem to indicate that the Government has recognised the gravity of the situation for young people in Ireland and is serious about providing solutions.

However, the best solution to the problem of youth unemployment is economic recovery. Interim measures such as JobBridge and Momentum can temporarily alleviate the problem, but only economic growth can fix it. Ireland’s economic recovery is by and large beyond the control of the Government because it depends on European recovery. If there is no growth in Ireland’s main export market, then there is little that can be done about it here in Ireland. It is in this context that Ireland takes on the Presidency of the EU for the first six months of 2013.

What can the Irish Government do, then, for Europe’s youth in its role as President? Firstly, it is seeking to create the environment for a strong economic recovery in Europe by getting agreement on full Banking Union to stabilise Europe’s banking system; by progressing free trade agreements with key partners, especially the United States; and by further unlocking the potential of the Single Market, with a particular emphasis on the Digital Single Market.

In addition to promoting economic recovery, the issue of youth unemployment has been prioritised. The Government promised as early as September 2012 that it would use the Presidency to advance plans for a Youth Guarantee scheme. After the publication of the European Commission’s proposals in December 2012 (summarised here by Juliane Sarnes), the Government reiterated that achieving political agreement on this issue will be a major objective of the Presidency.

Reaching swift agreement on the Commission’s proposals is unlikely to be a straightforward task. The Irish Minister for Social Protection has indicated that there is considerable variation among Member States on the terms of the Youth Guarantee scheme, including the extent and nature of the commitment that should be made to young people. Furthermore, it is not clear how the “Guarantee” will be enforced because education and employment policies are beyond the remit of the European Commission.

Moreover, although the Commission has pointed to the European Social Fund as a source of financial support for the scheme, the Youth Guarantee would be costly for Member States in terms of administrative and financial resources. Public employment services are already stretched to capacity in many Member States. The burden of additional resources required by a Youth Guarantee scheme would be especially heavy in the countries with the highest levels of youth unemployment. These are precisely the countries that are least capable of shouldering the extra cost.

Some of these Member States, including Ireland, are the programme countries that have been forced by the troika to make severe and sweeping cuts to areas like education. The rhetoric on supporting a Youth Guarantee, from both the Irish Government and the European Commission, sits rather uncomfortably with the huge cuts to Ireland’s education system since 2010.

Nevertheless, as the country with the youngest population in the EU and one of the highest levels of youth unemployment and emigration, Ireland is well placed to understand and to attempt to tackle this problem during its Presidency. Getting agreement on the Youth Guarantee would be beneficial to young people across Europe by acknowledging the disproportionate impact of the crisis on young Europeans and by finally taking action at European level to mitigate the problem. However, even if Ireland is successful in obtaining consensus and building a strong framework for the Youth Guarantee during its Presidency, it is unlikely that the scheme could be up and running before 2014. For many young people, this will be far too late to make a difference.