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For Europe’s youth it’s just downward from here

Mark Bergfeld is a writer and activist based in Cologne, Germany and London, UK. He tweets @mdbergfeld

Published time: July 17, 2014 12:34
Artists, technicians, part-time workers employed in the entertainment industry, and cultural employees (named in French "Intermittents") take part,  in Strasbourg, eastern France, on June 16, 2014, in a flash-mob called by several entertainment unions to protest against government cuts to their unemployment benefits. (AFP Photo / Patrick Hertzog)

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial system we have witnessed youth protests and riots from Athens to London. The message is the same: There is no hope! There is no future!

After the 1981 riots in the UK, Thatcher’s Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit stated: “I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.”

With youth unemployment standing at 5.187 million in the EU according to Eurostat and new areas of growth difficult to find, Tebbit’s old adage ‘get on your bike!’ has been turned into ‘Move to Germany’. Yet, this is not a solution to the youth unemployment crisis ripping through the eurozone. In fact, it will only make matters worse in the long-run.

The youth unemployment crisis

Just last week the EU showed that they do not want to solve the youth unemployment crisis. While EU bureaucrats are usually slow to react, they swiftly moved last week’s youth unemployment summit from the Italian city of Turin to Brussels after protesters announced they planned to descend on the city.

The protesters have every right to be angry at the European Union. In Italy, youth unemployment stands at 46 percent, while nine out of ten Italians between the age of 18 and 34 who have a job are on temporary contracts. Only in Spain and Greece is the situation more depressing. To make matters worse, not a single cent of the €6 billion Youth Employment Initiative launched back in February 2013 has so far been used.

The fund promised to get young people a good quality job within four months of losing a job or graduating. But they have nothing to show. As long as growth remains sluggish in the majority of EU member states, it is a promise which cannot be kept. It appears that policy makers and politicians have agreed to wait until the storm passes over. Thus the only solution is to encourage the young to move abroad. In Portugal, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho told the young to “show more effort” and “emigrate”.

The mobility agenda

The mobility agenda has been at the heart of the European project ever since its inception. Back in 1968 the free movement of labor became one of the four basic rights of the European Common Market. It would facilitate that labor could move across borders to meet demand. For the time being, it appeared that a solution for inflexible labor markets had been found. However when the crisis hit in 1973, national governments such as the German one were quick to halt immigration. Yet labor mobility remained essential in keeping wages low and promoting export-led growth.

By the early 2000s Europe’s youth started to fully embrace mobility. In their thousands they would travel through Europe via Interrail or hop on a cheap Ryanair flight for their summer holidays. Students from Athens to Copenhagen imagined that their lives would resemble L’auberge espanol, a film where a young French man moves to Barcelona for an Erasmus program just to find the European Dream in his shared flat. Across Europe, geographic mobility was promoted.

Anti-riot policemen clash with demonstrators in Turin during one of several rallies against unemployment and austerity in Italy. (AFP Photo / Marco Bertorello)

Eventually it would lead to upward social mobility, so it was said. However, today students need to be geographically mobile yet the promise of upward social mobility remains unfulfilled.

Even those who protested the international summits of the IMF, G8, WTO and NATO in Nice, Genoa, and Prague sought to make this new-found mobility theirs. Yet beneath the surface the mobility and flexibility agenda prepared the ground to turn European mobility into a race to the bottom. People have caught onto this unfortunately far too late. Last year the Spanish group Juventud Sin Futuro (Youths without Future) organized protests in towns and cities across Europe. With their suitcases they sent the message that they were not leaving their countries voluntarily but being forced to migrate – “Nos nos vamos, nos echan” (“We’re not leaving, they’re kicking us out”).

Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers the dream of European mobility has been turned into the nightmare of economic migration. Southern European youths with a university degree in their pockets now drive cabs, serve pints, sell vegetables or sit at a phone twelve hours a day six days a week in Amsterdam, Berlin or London. In 2012, Italy witnessed a 30 per cent increase in emigration to Germany and Switzerland amongst those popularly labeled the “800 euro generation” – with numbers rising. If this figure is not worrying enough, the fact that more than 34,000 Greeks moved to Germany between September 2011 and September 2012 should ring the alarm bells.

Promoting mobility, managing the crisis

While previous economic crises have led to the protection of domestic labor markets, the German government via the institutions of the European Union promotes mobility. We should not be fooled to believe that they are simply promoting the European idea. In fact, they are preparing their labor market for the future. With an ageing workforce and shortage of highly-qualified workers in the export industries, Southern European migration to Germany is one way to manage the crisis.

The link between the trade imbalances in the Eurozone and youth unemployment thus could not be more obvious. While Germany exports its manufactured goods to the countries of the European south. Countries such as Greece export its youth to Germany, leading to a brain drain and permanent scar on the domestic labor markets in Greece, Spain and Italy for decades to come. While it is great that a small number of young adults receives vocational training in Germany now, this will only lead to further economic imbalances between the North and South further down the line.

The fact that nations such as Greece, Spain and Italy have grounded their EU membership on the promise of high growth and low unemployment – none of which they have been able to provide in more recent years - the European project stands at a crossroads. Unlike in the early 2000s the mobility agenda today goes hand in hand with a set of neoliberal policies which seek to dissolve social ties, undermine collectively and restructure society in the interest of capital.

With their protests Europe’s youth have shown that mobility only goes into one direction, and it is downward from here.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.