In March 2004, 8% of those capable of gainful employment in the EU-15 countries were unemployed (Eurostat figures). Yet there are marked differences between individual countries: Luxembourg (4.1%), Ireland (4.5%) and Austria (4.5%) have unemployment rates about which Greece (9.3%), France (9.4%) and Spain (11.1%) can only dream. Stephen Nickell, an expert on the labour market and Professor at the London School of Economics, was overstating the case when he said that the problem of unemployment was not a European phenomenon, but rather a French, German (unemployment stands at 9.3%), Italian (8.5%) and Spanish one. Without these economies, he stated, there would be no problem of ‘European’ unemployment. In Great Britain, unemployment stands at under 5%.
Unemployment amongst the ‘Eurogeneration’
Following EU enlargement, the problematic fact that there is not enough work takes on new proportions. In a Europe of 25, nine out of every 100 people capable of working are unemployed. The unemployment rate in Slovakia and Poland is even above 15%. If you look at the figures for unemployment amongst young people – unemployment amongst the Eurogeneration – things look bleaker still. In the enlarged EU, one in five of those under 25 are unemployed. In Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Spain, that figure is even higher.
Unemployment. Here. Affecting us. Not so long ago that would have seemed impossible. It only affected people who were unqualified and past it. As for us – young and either still in education or recently graduated – we won’t be unemployed. Michael and I thought that too. After we both took our Abitur , Michael studied at a university of cooperative education, but despite his qualifications he is currently unemployed. Michael is 25 and still fairly optimistic regarding his job prospects. He reckons he will soon find another job, but just being unemployed at all came out of the blue. Even though it is not easy for him being unemployed, he believes he is fortunate in comparison to fathers with families who have to sell their house and suddenly find themselves out of work. The Spanish film ‘Los lunes al sol’ (“Mondays in the sun”) was a memorial to the unemployment of this generation. It tells the story of an unemployed shipyard worker in Galicia. But the film could equally have been set in Eastern Germany, Southern Italy, Greece or Slovakia.
Unemployment, often associated with poverty, makes for a crass comparison with an increasing rise in salaries among high-level managers. Salaries for the Spokesmen of the Board for the forty largest companies in France rose by 11.4% in 2003 despite sluggish growth (Le Monde 11 May 2004). Those figures do not include the 146% rise awarded to Edouard Michelin, head of the eponymously-titled company, since it would distort the overall picture. The top female earner is Lindsay Owen-Jones of Loréal with an annual salary of €6 million which does, admittedly, reflect double-digit growth for the eighteenth consecutive year. For others the correlation between achievement and remuneration is less clear-cut. In 2002, the board of Daimler Chrysler awarded themselves a 131% rise, despite the company’s share value plummeting by 39%. That is doubtless peanuts for Hilmar Kopper who, as chairman of the supervisory board, is largely responsible for the salaries of the Daimler Chrysler board. Even if such high salaries were justified, they nevertheless make for a crass comparison with the rising unemployment rate.
National governments react with ‘nationalistic’ reflexes, particularly during election campaigns. For example, Silvio Berlusconi consciously tries to drum up anti-European sentiment. In France, superminister Nicolas Sarkozy joined two national champions at the hip (Alstom and Sanofi-Aventis) to prevent jobs being lost abroad.
While European politicians get bogged down in their own country, they seem to lose sight of the bigger picture. Unemployment in Europe is a structural problem that is no respecter of national boundaries. The ambitious goals of the Lisbon strategy must finally be backed up with action: concentrating on innovation, lifelong learning, mobility and investment in research and education. This is the only way to ensure that the sun will rise again over the European labour market.