Ahead of the upcoming Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO) Informal on February 7th and 8th in Dublin, Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, writes that Ireland's welfare system should be a springboard as well as a safety net for our unemployed.
Let's start with the figures, because they're simply horrendous. Across Europe right now, 5.5 million young people – one in five of those aged between 15 and 24 who are on the labour market – are without a job. In some individual member states, the situation is even worse.
In Spain and Greece, it's one in every two young people on the labour market, with youth unemployment rates above 50 per cent. In Ireland, the rate is 32 per cent, which corresponds to about 61,000 young people.
This is not just a problem. It's an existential crisis for the European Union. The economic cost has been estimated at more than €150bn a year, or 1.2 per cent of EU GDP. But how do we measure the social cost, the terrible and potentially lasting effects of unemployment on the young people themselves?
The internationally respected economists David Bell and David Blanchflower found that even a short spell of unemployment when young can have devastating effects throughout a person's life.
The Youth Guarantee is ambitious. But we have to be ambitious – the sheer scale of the crisis demands it.
Youth unemployment increases the likelihood of being unemployed later in life. And there are a host of knock-on consequences on pay, health and status. In short, youth unemployment leaves permanent scars. That is why I say this is no mere problem for the EU; it's a potential personal and societal tragedy. So what can be done about it?
This week in Dublin Castle, as part of Ireland's presidency of the Council of the EU, social protection and employment ministers from the member states will gather to discuss this and other issues.
My colleague, Jobs Minister Richard Bruton, will chair discussions on skills development and training for growth sectors of the economy.
I will chair discussions on the youth unemployment crisis, and a key proposal to tackle it, namely the Youth Guarantee. Like all good ideas, it is a simple one – that member states would guarantee every young person under 25 a job, training or educational placement within a set number of months of becoming unemployed. But agreement will not be simple. During the negotiations so far, several member states have expressed understandable concerns, including how such a scheme would be funded.
But while I am cognisant of those concerns, we simply have to overcome them. Yes, the Youth Guarantee is ambitious. But we have to be ambitious – the sheer scale of the crisis demands it.
On the funding side, the European Commission envisages member states prioritising some of the money they receive from the European Social Fund to implement the guarantee. As part of our Presidency, Ireland is chairing separate negotiations on the wider EU budget for 2014 to 2020, including the ESF.
As chair, Ireland will act as honest broker in those negotiations, seeking to move them forward in a fair and impartial way. On the wider EU approach, I will say this, though: it is now clear that austerity policies cannot go on forever.
The IMF itself has acknowledged it underestimated the effects of austerity. Aside from the policy, the EU's response to the economic crisis has been far too slow, even if the pieces are gradually coming together now, five years later.
We cannot wait five years to tackle the youth unemployment crisis. To do so would be to fail our young people, and stack up problems for the Union down the line.
I am confident that during the Irish presidency we can deliver a successful outcome to these negotiations and get agreement on a deal. It won't mean that everybody will find employment overnight. But it will create opportunities and give hope to Europe's youth, and lay a sustainable foundation for the EU's future.
Joan Burton TD is Minister for Social Protection. This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent.