Interview with Brando Benifei MEP, Co-Chair of the European Parliament’s Youth Intergroup.
1) There are still 4.287 million young people unemployed (under 25) in the EU today. The success of the Youth Guarantee so far has been patchy and it has not yet been successful in reaching out to those young people far from the labour market. Do you think the Youth Guarantee can really make a difference when it comes to youth unemployment? What more could this EU do to tackle youth unemployment?
The youth unemployment rate that many European countries are now facing is the result of a long series of political mistakes and inappropriate responses to the economic and social crisis that have affected the continent in the last years. The Youth Guarantee has been an example of a concrete answer with a clear political objective: to provide young people below the age of 25, qualitatively good jobs, further education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship within four months of unemployment or after leaving the formal education system. It is true, however, that the program has received some criticism from the point of view of the final results, although one should be very careful where to address such criticism: to the programme itself, or rather to the way it has been implemented? The answer, in my view, is the latter. There have been limits due to the huge discrepancies between regions, the excessively bureaucratic mechanism and the inadequate capacity of job centres to absorb young people demands. However, all these aspects should be seen in a positive way because they outline the areas in which we still need to invest. A major flexibility in project design, streamlined administrative procedures and operational programs, improvement of the quality and inclusiveness of the projects themselves would facilitate the strengthening of the scheme. Europe can do more, but as the European Commission showed in its Annual Growth survey, the YG has become a driving force to improve the transition from school to work, reducing youth unemployment. Besides YEI and YG, structural measures need to be taken to improve the functioning of the labour market at a European level. One of these has been proposed a few months ago by the Italian Minister Pier Carlo Padoan that launched the idea of a common unemployment insurance scheme for the Eurozone. It is an important project, not just a measure of social equality but also a positive stimulus that could have strong macroeconomic effects, allowing the containment of the severity of the crisis, exerting a powerful anti-cyclical function and stabilizing the economy. In the long run the most effective response will be a deeper integration between the European countries starting from the Eurozone. Only a common economic policy could prevent future crisis.
2) The transition from education to employment is increasingly difficult for young people, with many taking up unpaid internships with little learning content. Many institutions here in Brussels, especially the European Parliament, are guilty of offering such internships. What do you think can be done to stop this?
Data from the European Commission show that every year in Europe 4.5 million students and graduates are involved in internships. 59 % of these interns are unpaid, and 40% are without a contract and social protection. About 30 % of the internships do not have any learning content and others consist in a replacement of permanent workers with cheaper labour force. It is a big and complex issue that requires higher political attention, which is why I’m promoting with other MEPs a Written Declaration on unpaid and low-quality internship. As Co-Chair of the Youth Intergroup, I am also working together with my Colleagues in order to re-launch also for this mandate the campaign that was run -together with EYF- in the last legislature on Quality and Paid Internships in the European Parliament. We should be leading the fight and constitute a virtuous example for companies outside EU institutions. From a broader perspective, we need to introduce common and binding set of rules, making unpaid internships for graduates illegal and improving the quality of internships and the working conditions of interns. Only a strong action with a legislative proposal from the European Commission could tackle this serious and pressing European issue, the European Quality Charter for Internships and Apprenticeships is a fundamental tool to start but not enough.
3) The quality of job offers for young people is often poor: with unstable work, de-standardised forms of contracts – such as zero hours contracts- with little social protection. This exacerbates in work poverty of young people and increases the risk of social exclusion. How can better quality work offers be ensured?
One of the clearest effects of the crisis has been the rise of inequalities and the creation of new divisions, at all levels. Recent studies such as the one presented by OECD (“Rising inequality: youth and poor fall further behind”) demonstrate that young people have suffered more than other categories. Precarious jobs, lower level of social security, the worrying situation of NEETs generates a negative spiral towards social exclusion that makes it very difficult for them to achieve financial and personal independence. Changing our labour policies by investing in structural measures must be a priority.
Mobility can be one of the keywords. According to a 2014 study, the probability of mobile youngsters becoming long-term unemployed is reduced by half as compared to non-mobile ones; yet in 2016, 88% of young Europeans never went abroad in order to engage in an exchange program.
Opportunities, like Erasmus+ and the EURES platform, do actually exist but they are not used to their full potential. Recently, together with other colleagues, I proposed a pilot project: the Erasmus for Apprenticeships, based on the idea that a mid-term period of experience abroad would be stimulating and valuable even for youngster engaged in VET. I hope it will be successful enough to become a structural program of the Union.
In a complementary way, looking at the labour offer and therefore willing to implement strategies to broaden employability of youngsters, changes and harmonization within education systems are also needed. Overall, we still do not notice proper teaching on digital skills and on foreign languages, a clear inadequacy in the education system. Luckily, across Europe best practices are already put in place, as we learned while running preparatory work on Parliament’s dossiers. Just to mention a few examples, we can consider the strategies to promote youth entrepreneurship through education and training, as well as plans to tap into the job creation potential of green economy and social innovation. However, there are some topics where we could act more effectively. More effort could be put in formalizing recognition of skills acquired through non-formal education and volunteering, creating proper paths of personal development that could easily integrate and complement skills acquired through formal education, with a more precise acknowledgement of both goals and an overall more labour-oriented approach.
4) Refugees are particularly vulnerable when it comes to accessing the labour market. As the rapporteur for a report on integration of refugees into the labour market, what measures would you like to see put in place to help tackle this?
My report clearly outlines how refugees’ integration into society is both a challenge and an opportunity, and that one cannot properly deploy effective programmes without taking the matter of funding and resources into serious account. The main point to understand is whether there are, at the moment, the economic, social and legislative conditions to make that happen. The answer is: not entirely, actually. One of the main problems I see, today, aside from the lack of cooperation – or even hostility – of certain countries to work out a common, effective solution, is the dire macroeconomic condition of our Continent following years of crisis and recession. Whatever measure we take to integrate refugees into our economies is urgent, needed and must be welcomed, but must imperatively be accompanied by serious investments into society as a whole, through job-creation policies and ambitious investment strategies. Otherwise I fear it will not work and it will make labour markets more segmented, societies poorer, and the rich-poor divide wider.
Refugees are confronted with many problems even after their asylum request is accepted: language, recognition of their qualification, skills assessment; they face discrimination; they often struggle to integrate in a country that is sometimes very different from the one they come from. All these problems need answers, which should arrive at an early stage, in order to increase the chances for durable, full and successful integration.
In the report, we call for modifications to the present legislation on access to the labour market, in particular the Reception Conditions Directive, including for refugees and asylum seekers to be guaranteed labour market access in six months rather than the current nine. We also call for the ESF allocations to be raised up to 25 % of the cohesion policy in the process of revision of the Multiannual Financial Framework. We also request additional public investments and resources to grant local authorities, civil society and volunteer organisations with direct financial support for the deployment of social inclusion and integration programmes for refugees.
5)More generally on refugees, do you feel that EU leaders have the right approach to the topic and put forward the rights policies with regard to the individual human tragedies and tapping into the people’s potentials ? What do you think about Socialist colleagues in Austria and Slovakia, following the discourse of right-wing populists believing it will help their popularity?
You know way too well how difficult and unpopular discussing migration is for politicians, not only today. The management of the refugee crisis is probably one of the main challenges the European Union and its society are facing today, because of its size, its pace and the complexity of its social, political and economic implications. Unfortunately, I have the feeling we are getting more and more used to the instrumental use of a certain populist rhetoric, which is widespread in the media. Political leaders tend to adapt their communication along these lines, and this is seriously detrimental to a well-informed, balanced and fair discussion. What is happening in Austria and Slovakia, two rather different situations I would say, is the result of an incomplete path towards the integration of the European Union. The attempt of finding national solutions to common European problems is a stubborn, silly and anachronistic reaction, resulting from a political and cultural maturity which is yet to be achieved in the EU public opinion as well as in the governing elites. Closing borders, building walls or rejecting asylum seekers, therefore escaping from precise international and humanitarian commitments, for the sake of mere electoral purposes, is not only a failed mix of policies but, above all, a shameful act which will receive the severe judgement of history in the future.
Opportunities like the YO!Fest and European Youth Event are important because they offer an excellent opportunity to create and improve dialogue between young people and institutions. The fact that many young people, from all over Europe, can gather and discuss topics such as unemployment, internships, integration of refugees and democratic participation is a significant step forward to create a common awareness of the great challenges that our continent is facing today. The ideas that have emerged from the debate can positively influence policy makers and strengthen the sense of community of the European youth. The Yo!Fest is an important arena of public debate and I hope that it will continue its activities in the years to come!
Header photo from European Parliament website.