BRUSSELS: EU leaders kicked off a two-day summit on Thursday aimed at tackling the jobs crisis in Europe, just hours after officials clinched a tentative compromise between governments on the European Union’s hotly contested trillion-euro budget.
“We are here today to take concrete action on ... issues that matter to millions of people. We’re here to fight youth unemployment, a most urgent concern for our societies,” said European president Herman Van Rompuy as he opened the session.
Shortly before the summit began, European Union leaders clinched a deal on its hotly-contested trillion-euro budget, which opens the prospect of the 27-nation bloc being able to quickly disburse billions of euros to help Europe’s 5.6 million unemployed under 25-year-olds.
“Today we have agreed on this budget that will make investment in Europe possible,” EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said of the compromise that still needs to be approved by the EU’s 754 lawmakers.
“This is the growth fund for Europe,” Barroso said.
“Unemployment in countries like mine has really sky-rocketed,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said as he arrived for the meeting.
“Solutions should have drastic measures that take place immediately. That’s the most important thing,” Samaras said.
The jobless rate among young people in Greece is the worst in Europe -- at 62.5 per cent -- followed by Spain at 56.4 per cent, Portugal at 42.5 per cent and Italy at 40.5 per cent. Analysts warn the unemployment rate will continue to rise as the eurozone recession grinds on and that there is little Europe can do, with much of the burden on national governments.
Among the measures being considered is a proposal to speed up disbursement starting next year of a €6-billion (US$7.8-billion) fund for initiatives to tackle unemployment.
But Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann sounded a sceptical note.
“I think we would need these six billion every year to get hundreds of thousands (of unemployed young people) off the streets,” he said.
“I hope we have a good summit, a summit for youth employment, a summit to control finances and a summit for growth and jobs,” said French President Francois Hollande.
“Frankly that is what Europeans expect.”
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces elections in September in a country largely weary of funding struggling southern European states, warned that discipline remained key.
“The main thing here is about improving our competitiveness,” she said. ”It’s not about creating more and more pots of money.”
Prime Minister David Cameron marked a similar tone on arriving for the summit.
“Getting control of spending, making sure we live within our means, making ourselves more competitive, getting rid of regulation and boosting jobs -- that’s what we’re doing in Britain, that’s what we should do in Brussels too,” he said.
For the first time, business and industry leaders and employees from private and public sectors are taking part in the summit, which will also try to find solutions to the credit crunch holding back Europe’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
“This is an urgent situation and we urge European leaders to act concretely to confront it,” said Bernadette Segol from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
Europe-wide, talk of a lost generation and concern over popular discontent are feeding support for extremist political parties, breeding dissatisfaction with the European project, and fuelling animosity towards EU institutions.
A Pew Research survey last month branded the European Union “The New Sick Man of Europe”, showing favourable opinion of the EU slumping from 60 per cent last year to just 45 per cent now.
“The European project now stands in disrepute across much of Europe,” it said.
But Eastern European states continue to bid to join the bloc of 500 million people and none of the 17 nations that share the euro -- about to become 18 with Latvia -- is keen to leave.
Serbia is expected to win endorsement at the EU summit to begin membership talks no later than January after having agreed to tough conditions to normalise ties with its former province Kosovo.
And Croatia on Monday officially becomes the 28th EU state.
But citizens from the core EU states are increasingly opposed to enlarging towards the poorer east.