BRUSSELS Feb 27 European Union leaders must
strengthen social policies or run the risk of soaring
unemployment undermining support for the EU and its
institutions, labour ministers said in a strongly worded
document circulated on Wednesday.
The call comes after voters in Italy, the euro zone's third
largest economy, resoundingly rejected the austerity policies
advocated by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti and supported
by the rest of the EU.
"Social Europe is in trouble," said the five-page paper
circulated among ministers ahead of a meeting in Brussels, a
copy of which was obtained by Reuters. "It is ... dangerous for
the very future of the European Union.
"If we do not succeed in showing that Europe brings about
training, employment and social progress for citizens, important
conditions for the legitimacy of the European project will be
Anti-austerity street protests and strikes have swept
through Greece, Spain, Portugal and Belgium as three years of
sovereign debt crisis and shrinking economic output have worn
down voters' patience with budget consolidation.
The labour ministers, who meet for talks in Brussels on
Thursday, said the 17 countries of the euro zone would only
emerge from the crisis if governments could find ways to tackle
unemployment across the bloc.
"Europe needs the courage to respond to the major financial
and economic crisis that it is experiencing with social and
employment policies that make a real change to people's working
and living conditions," it said.
"The relevant level of response goes more and more beyond
the national framework; it is also a European one that must be
accompanied by appropriate measures."
Unemployment stood at a record high of 11.7 percent in the
euro zone and 10.7 percent in the European Union in December and
is seen rising further this year. In Spain and Greece, youth
unemployment exceeds 50 percent.
"The rising social costs and high unemployment -
particularly youth unemployment - may undermine people's trust
in the value of the European community and its institutions,"
the paper said.
The ministers supported the idea of introducing a guarantee
for young people that they would either be offered a job or
further training within four months of leaving school -- what
the EU calls a Youth Guarantee.
Such schemes already work in Scandinavia and would might
give hope to the likes of Spain or Greece, where the economies
run the risk of a lost generation of unemployed people.
The ministers also want to help workers move around more
easily in the 27-nation bloc, especially it they are to offset
the fact that getting a job in another country often entails the
loss of acquired pension or social security rights.
They also want to return to a discussion on setting a
minimum wage in Europe as a whole. Up to eight EU countries,
like Germany, do not have a minimum wage because they set wages
in collective bargaining between trade unions and employers.