A year ago I met a group of young Spanish workers who had walked to Brussels to call on European leaders to give them a chance to start a normal working life. Coming from the North-East of England, marches of the unemployed have particular resonance and their stories resonated with what I hear from home.
Youth unemployment in Europe is at catastrophic levels. According to the latest figures out this week, in August 2012 just over one in five young people (22.8% of 15-24 year olds) in Europe were not in work, training or education. Over a million are unemployed in the UK, over half of Spanish and Greek young workers are unemployed, not in training or education, even in Germany and Sweden where employment rates generally are higher, youth unemployment is persistent and rising. Paradoxically we also face major skills gaps in key industries and trades. Moreover, just as in the 1930s, the rise in income inequality, especially at the top of the income distribution, has reached unprecedented levels.
In yet, what is the Tory response in Europe?
While Ed Miliband is proposing a strategy to rebuild our economy, reduce inequalities and tackle youth unemployment at the Labour Party conference this week, it’s despicable that the Tories are actively undermining all European attempts to concretely address youth unemployment and rising inequality.
The UK government is blocking every attempt to develop a European Youth Guarantee. A youth guarantee would ensure the right for all young people to a job, quality apprenticeship or training, within 4 months of unemployment.
As leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, MEP Martin Callanan has asked European leaders to strip back employment protection legislation and lead a deregulatory charge. Even if it’s clear that it is deregulation that got us into this mess in the first place. In May this year, he claimed that basic protections such as rights for temporary agency workers or maximum working hours were “totally irresponsible in the current climate”, but he had nothing to say about excessive bonuses or golden parachutes in the banking sector.
After years of wages stagnating or falling, wages, pensions and working conditions, are under attack across the Continent, allegedly to ‘drive growth’ as Martin Callanan proposes. But recovery will not come through cutting wages and employment protection – austerity of this sort has killed growth 3 times in the last 100 years: now since 2010, 1997 (Japan/Asian crisis) and the 1930s.
Watching the scenes from Madrid’s streets this last few weeks, I’m sure that those Spanish young workers are amongst the millions of people calling for an alternative to the austerity policies being pressed by the Tories and their allies in Europe. Demonstrating just as people here will be on the 20th October in the TUC demonstration for A Future That Works.
We urgently need an alternative agenda promoting a job-rich exit strategy giving a future to young workers and addressing the rising inequalities which are crippling the recovery. Investment in training and education, quality public services and the transformation of our transport and energy infrastructure to meet the challenges of climate change.
Listening to Miliband last week, I was reminded of sitting in York University’s main lecture theatre in 2009 listening to Professor Richard Wilkinson present the findings of their groundbreaking research ‘The Spirit Level’, in which he and Professor Kate Pickett demonstrated that the one common factor that links the healthiest and happiest societies is the degree of equality among their members. Equality matters not just for the poorest in society but for all.
The Tory agenda at EU level is to roll back the basic rights needed to ensure economic recovery with any level of equality and fairness. The future direction of the EU and UK are at stake. To secure peace and prosperity in Europe, we need a strong progressive vision of investment and employment, like that set out by Miliband this week. It depends on resocialising Europe. Let’s start with our young and a European Youth Guarantee.
Judith Kirton-Darling is the ETUC Confederal Secretary