The International Labor Organization (ILO) warns of a dramatic rise in youth unemployment in the EU should Greece leave the euro. DW spoke to Peter Matjasic, president of the European Youth Forum.
DW: The ILO is warning that if Greece leaves the eurozone, there will be a catastrophic rise in youth unemployment throughout the monetary union. Are you worried that the situation could get worse before it gets better?
Peter Matjasic: Of course this danger exists, and in many cases they are playing with fire. But it's very difficult for us; we often feel impotent in the wake of such decisions. As representatives of youth, we are a small fish to fry. We remain hopeful that reason will prevail over emotions and that there will be a proper solution to the problem. We are in favor of solidarity among European countries, so it's really up to our leaders to see what they will do with the situation in Greece, and to do everything to prevent it from becoming worse both there and in other struggling places in Europe.
But if alarmingly high unemployment rates among young people haven't yet had an impact on governments - what does?
To be honest, that's what we're asking ourselves at the moment. But we're actually trying to get governments to look beyond the notion of national unemployment. We have heard calls to make this generation the most mobile - which in theory it certainly is - but in practice there are obstacles. If you want to offer those unemployed in one EU country a job in anothe r EU country, then you need to make sure that when they move they don't face barriers. That can be barriers such as their diplomas not being recognized, or their health insurance or social security not being provided. So we need to tackle those things, and that can be done regardless of what the highest political level decides on any broader topic of the crisis.
How does youth unemployment here in Europe compare to other areas in the industrialized world, like the US?
Well, in those countries the labor market is more flexible and it's easier to hire and fire people, so they have a different approach and understanding what social welfare is. We still stick to and believe that in Europe we have a European welfare system that - even though under threat at the moment - is still good from the human perspective; there need to be some sort of rights and measures in place that protect the worker's rights. And that's something we are worried about: if the situation continues to worsen we will potentially become too much of a one way system and lose some of the benefits that we're used to. That doesn't mean that we're clinging on to something that's passé as some critics might say, but we truly believe that there should be certain security and certain recognition of your work.
What about other areas of the world?
With regard to the results of Tuesday's ILO report, we can see that youth unemployment is much higher in the Middle East or North Africa, for instance, or many parts of Asia and Latin America. But this is of course linked to the simple fact that, demographically, there are more young people living in these areas. But at the end of the day, we see when we cooperate with these regions that everybody is facing similar problems at the moment with the transition to the labor market. Naturally, the problems are of a varied nature depending on the region in question, because many of these areas have a less formal economy than Europe. But now, due to the fact that Europe is in a crisis, we are very much in a similar boat.
Speaking of the crisis in Europe, youth unemployment in Greece and Spain is now around 53 percent. Some analysts say we're looking at a generation without a future in those countries. Would you agree?
There are dangers that this could be a lost generation if nothing gets done about it. But I also see a future for young people if we actually invest in them and give them opportunities to thrive. The fear is that austerity measures are cutting where it's needed in terms of investment, such as education and social inclusion programs, or programs that aid young people in their search for work.
Would you say that unemployed young people are bearing the burden of the economic crisis throughout the eurozone?
Definitely. Youth unemployment has always been higher than the general unemployment levels. That's a structural problem in most countries. However, due to the financial crisis, that has been exaggerated to an unprecedented extent - for example in Greece and Spain. Of course, this is also linked to the difficult transition from education to the labor market and how the labor market works in those countries: if it's open enough or not, if the recognition of diplomas is set for the needs of the labor market. It's a very complex situation – we can't just say it's A or B. A lot of factors influence it. But of course the crisis has had a severe impact.
The unemployment situation has been linked to rising crime levels and a higher incidence of depression in young people. Are you surprised that we haven't seen the frustration resulting in wide scale unrest and violence?
Well it always depends on what triggers these violent outbursts. I think the young people of today are approaching the situation very realistically and they're aware that they won't have a job for life anymore. And this isn't because of the crisis - it's the general trend in the world in which we live. But of course we need to see how we can assist them in this process. And today we have one of the smartest generations ever, in terms of education, in comparison with their parents. However the opportunities to put that into action, to make use of that knowledge is not necessarily there.
A pilot project was launched by the European Social Fund earlier this year. It released around three billion euros to EU member states worst hit by youth unemployment. Has that money generated more jobs?
This is a tricky issue. The problem is twofold. Firstly, there was actually no new money, it was just redirected money from the existing funds. Secondly, we have tried through our member organizations, through our national youth councils in the countries that were targeted, to find out how the money was spent and where it was spent. But the problem is, we do not have the information. It's really difficult to track how this has been implemented. Either the problem is at the communications level or member states have not really listened to the call by the Commission to do this properly. In the end, it's really up to the Commission to make sure that these measures are implemented. If they're not, there must be repercussions.