A well-attended conference held at the highly respected Sciences Po in Paris yesterday demonstrated a more cohesive European approach to finding solutions to rising youth unemployment. The Nicolas Berggruen Institute, which seeds ideas and helps to fund events such as this, brought in influential scholars, economists, politicians both former and present, as well as students, journalists and representatives of industry from across Europe to put forth new initiatives which will hopefully begin to restart the engine of European competitiveness. Although the opening speech by French President, François Hollande, was general in nature, the high-level panels, as well as the student-lead focus groups presented detailed information which provided concrete steps forward so that the six quarters of recession will begin to reverse within the next few months, if all goes as planned.
The most dynamic solutions were actually proposed not by business, but rather by Europe itself, be it the European Investment Bank, whose primary purpose is to help integrate European markets and equalize disparities within Europe, or the Erasmus academic program, which promotes university exchanges within Europe, being extended to vocational exchanges. All of the most impressive ideas put forth during the conference had to do with doing more of what Europe does well, and less of what it does not do well, primarily more education and training, and less waste and thus better financial management of budgets, as stressed repeatedly by Mario Monti.
To foster more job growth, the European Council and its member states have made the decision to initiate structural reforms, as well as to strengthen lending. The EIB will have available an additional credit of EUR 60bn between 2013 and 2015 and will also impact SMEs. There will be approximately EUR 16 bn flowing towards member states with the most youth unemployment and the EC estimates that this will directly improve the lives of 780,000 young people and 55,000 SMEs. Banks need to begin lending again and at rates which will boost SMEs not force them into bankruptcy. Add to this new Microcredit programs and self-employment schemes, as well as increased competitively backed by funds for research and education increasing by at least 24 percent and 18 percent respectively, and the results should be visible within the coming year. Infrastructure will also be increasing by 50 percent.
But perhaps the most exciting program to be expanded is the Erasmus Program for student exchanges which been around for 25 years. Its aim is to foster a stronger Europe through the lives of young people who will shape the future of the EU. This program will now also include vocational training for young people seeking employment which will send them abroad to another EU member state to apprentice, receive training and acquire both vocational and language skills which will enhance the integration of Europe.
But beyond more focused EU spending is also the responsibility of business to help bring down youth unemployment by showing what they have to offer Europe in order to make the transition from school to work flow more smoothly. Too many young people have either never had a job or have been out of work for up to three years, or are simply employed time and again as interns in order to hold down costs for employers. Many more European youth do not have the training needed across Europe, in, for example, engineering, even though hundreds of thousands of new engineers will be needed in the years to come. In order to remain competitive, the leaders of industry from the likes of Siemens and Fiat recognize that much of their growth is occurring in their export sectors, but that innovation is done back in Europe. Be it a washing machine or a Maserati, they may be selling abroad, but the design engineers and technical specialists, thus the R&D, must be highly educated and trained. Trade unions still have a very powerful voice but also a responsibility to partner in this expanded training initiative.
The most obvious problems with both the seemingly self-appointed Council for the Future of Europe and the panelists themselves is that they included only one woman out of 24 members of the council and of the non-student panelists, only three women participated in a group of 30. When I asked one of the organizers of the conference why there were not more women present, she replied that they had asked many more women to participate, but that they were too busy.
And that would be my most challenging question to these conference organizers, where are the women in the future of Europe? I have attended other such conferences over the past few years and there are so few women participating that it seems unacceptable that any serious decisions can be made as half of the population is not only not represented, but the self-appointed councils and groups and conference organizers have not managed to empower women or get them excited enough about these very influential meetings to actually attend and make their voices heard.
Add to that the fact that the heads of industry represented are also all men, and you end up with an extremely lopsided view of Europe. Furthermore, there were next to no non-white male "wise men" as one person put it, i.e. part of the most dynamic workforce and mobile workforce in Europe for the last decades has been its first, second and now third generation immigrants from either former colonies, or politically and economically troubled states. The talent that rests within these uninvited to the table groups is enormous. They already understand many of them entrepreneurship and microloans and have started small businesses across Europe, at times focused on their own communities, but also simply because they were far down the list in terms of being prioritized for jobs. Many of these people are the best and brightest, yet I did not see many of them present at this event.
Perhaps as a fellow "outsider," I am optimistic about the future of Europe, not only because I see its strengths in its recent flows of immigrants, but also how young people want to reach out and get to know their fellow Europeans. And I believe this is why Nicolas Berggruen and his Institute held these conferences yesterday, because Berggruen himself is a mix of cultures. He grew up between Europe and the U.S. He has parents who represent several countries in Europe in terms of background, and he has been active in trying to promote long-term thinking on both sides of the Atlantic. A former hedge fund manager turned "homeless billionaire", Mr. Berggruen may be a bit mysterious t those who know nothing about him, but his aim is clear, he wants to encourage Europe to emphasize the best of what it offers and represents and to help itself out of its problems. I would simply caution men like this who, though obviously committed, have not been elected by anyone. And though the much-desired continuity which both Europe and the U.S. need in order to build stronger economies, infrastructure, education and employment, should not always be subject to the latest political and even more disturbingly recent nationalistic whims, it must always be truly democratic.
If Europe can figure its way out of this mess, in a way which is truly European and which upholds the quality of life which so many people around the world could only wish they shared, then it will be able to regain its standing and the respect of its trading partners and allies. When I speak with an American executive, highly trained technical man who has spent the last fifteen years working throughout Europe, he tells me he would not accept many hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary to return to the U.S. He tells me of friends, couples with no children living in the U.S., who are high-income earners, yet their quality of life is much less than an average European. When I speak with a German small business owner who exports to China, and who must spend much of his life on planes, he is adamant that neither he nor any of his German specialists wish to live in polluted China and raise their children there. I speak to a third executive, this time an American who once lived and worked in London and who returned to the U.S, and all he wants is to come back to Europe.
We all know Europe must be doing something right. The quality of life is still high, even if the horrific unemployment figures directly impact even how much food a family buys in Spain, France, Portugal or Greece. The problem is that Europe has forgotten how to support what it does well, and learn how to focus on evolving in areas where it has been both wasteful and not realistic about competitiveness. This means more education, more training, more exchanges, and overall, more Europe for Europe. The money is already there, now it needs to be correctly channeled, and people and businesses need to ask themselves what they can do to strengthen Europe's economy, while not giving up the hard-won quality of life towards which people around the world strive as a goal. In the end, it has to do with business serving humans, and not vice-versa.