Singular or Plural? Understanding the multiplicity on EU employment policy

Starting from 2005 and with a growing intensity year by year, a wide variety of EU normative texts on employment, and more specifically, on youth employment can be recorded. Policies range from up-skilling and re-skilling, to subsidies in order to support the first job placement. Among them, mobility schemes are re-branded for the needs of addressing youth unemployment. Labour mobility is definitely not new. Established in 1987, the EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students better known as Erasmus programme became a flagship for European integration. Purpose of the programme was to promote “cultural, social, and academic exchanges between European students”. 9 million students have up to date travelled to different institutions and got exposed to different academic cultures. Yet, since 2012 mobility is part of the toolbox addressing youth unemployment. Before the obvious questions arising, regarding the suitability of such a programme in tackling labour market issues, one has to start from a rather fundamental question: Is there “one EU policy” on the subject matter? The re-branding of mobility is an obvious and far-fetching case. But is this an exception?

As already noted, the first normative texts addressing specifically the issue of youth unemployment can be traced in 2005: The integrated Employment Guidelines (Council Decision, 2005/600/EC), suggested that the employment rate targets be achieved through measures aimed at increasing employment supply and flexibility, addressing skills mismatch, and investing in human capital.

A different Council Recommendation from the same year (2005/601/EC) articulated the Council’s views on how to achieve the Europe 2010 targets for economic growth and employment through, amongst other, reforms in the labour market that promote ‘adaptability’ and ‘flexibility’.

Commission Communication COM (2005) 206 amongst its three strands includes the ‘employment, integration, and social advancement’ strand referring to the attraction and retention of more people in employment; the improvement of adaptability of workers and enterprises, and the flexibility of labour markets; and increased investment in human capital.

The ensuing financial crisis in 2008 led to The European Economic Recovery Plan (Commission Communication, COM(2008) 800, 2008) proposing two main exit strategies from the crisis including ‘boosting market demand and ‘smart’ investment in skills’.

In the turmoil of the deepening crisis, the 2010 Broad Economic Policy Guidelines (Council Recommendation, 210/410/EU, 2010) and Employment Guidelines (Council Decision 2010/707/EU, 2010) were primarily focused on monetary and financial stability. To boost employment, Member States were encouraged to promote labour market reforms towards the concept of ‘flexicurity’, while the development of skills in accordance with labour market trends was considered another key target.

It was only in 2010 that a specific to the youth policy appears. The Youth on the Move initiative (Commission Communication COM(2010) 477, 2010) comprised four major themes including the ii) the upward trend for employees’ higher qualifications’ and ‘life-long learning and its relation to educational or training programmes’.

At the end of 2011, with EU youth unemployment over 20% and as high as 40% in some countries, the Commission launched the Youth Opportunities Initiative. This initiative became the policy framework for the Youth Guarantee (Commission Communication (COM2011) 933, 2011). The target group of youths included both the unemployed and the NEETs. The communication called on the Member States to launch national policies for tackling the phenomenon while, at the same time, suggesting that ‘The EU level can play a supportive role […] in two ways: By reviewing national policies and performances […]; by providing financial support to national and cross-border action’.

Up until now, the supply side politics were obvious. On a stark change of perception, the communication ‘Towards a Rich Job Recovery’ (Commission Communication (COM2012) 173, 2012) in April 2012 recognised three basic fields of action, from which we focus on two: i) job creation; ii) restoring the dynamics of labour markets. The suggested measures for job creation included hiring and tax subsidies. Furthermore, the communication underlined the usefulness of enhancing flexibility in working relationships.

The Commission proposed a Youth Employment Package in December 2012, which included: i) a Youth Guarantee; ii) suggestions for a European Framework for Traineeships; iii) a European Alliance for Apprenticeships, which was launched in July 2013; and iv) actions for promoting young peoples’ mobility. The flagship of youth unemployment policies, the Youth Guarantee (Council Recommendation 2013/C 120/01, 2013), published in April 2013.

The recommendation intended to provide Member States with a cohesive framework for action. To achieve this, it was structured in six interdependent but discrete fields, which are often mentioned as guidelines. I will be focusing on the third guideline: ‘Supportive measures for labour market integration’ comprising two strands: The first regarded upskilling of ‘low skilled’ individuals into education and training schemes, aligned with labour market demand needs. The second referred to labour market-related measures, which included reducing, when possible, non-wage employment cost; the use of employment subsidies; promoting interregional or international mobility based on the supply of employment or apprenticeships.

As European economies started to recover, the 2015 Broad Guidelines for Economic Policy (Council Recommendation EU 2015 11/84, 2015), re-advocated the need for productive investments.

The supplementary Employment Guidelines (Council Decision EU 2018/1215, 2018) noted that the labour market demand side should be supported through eliminating ‘hiring barriers’ and promoting ‘responsible entrepreneurship’ and self-employment.

The European Parliament Resolution (2018) on the YG attempted to adopt a long-term perspective. Concerning implementation, Member States were criticised for not having converted the YG Council Recommendation to a more binding form of national policy!

The Reinforced Youth Guarantee (Council Recommendation 2020/C372/01, 2020), published in October 2020, without deviating from past practices, focuses on the demand side with wage subsidies and ensuring that the beneficiary receives a quality job offer.

A 20th century analysis of what is a “policy” would point towards the following direction: A policy is not a conscious response to a problem but a conceptual framework towards solving a problem. In other words, a policy is identified when the shift from AN issue to THE public issue is also identified. It is interesting, therefore, to understand when youth unemployment becomes THE public issue. Despite the persistently high youth unemployment level in the underprivileged areas of the EU, youth unemployment becomes THE public issue only in 2010.

What is more striking though is an apparent policy shift. During the first stages of the financial crisis the mainstream economic paradigm -supply side economics- had a direct impact on the pertinent policy texts (re-skilling, up-skilling, adaptation of the employee to new conditions etc). Yet, in 2012 we noted a policy shift. The demand side perspective comes in the forefront and persistently noted in the policy texts following Youth Guarantee. After that the supply and the demand side economics co-exist.

This paradoxical co-existence is not the only one. The noted constant effort of the European Commission to achieve full compliance of the Member States to the “recommendations” is a sign of the multiple levels of addressing youth unemployment: Central EU policy compared to national policies. Given that policy includes implementation, we can partly rephrase the previous ascertainment. If there is a policy shift, then this regards the EU Commission. The Member States applied versions of that policy and they have been criticised for that reason. In that respect the ‘one EU policy’ principle seems to collapse.

The re-branding of the mobility between EU member states in order to tackle youth unemployment represents an extreme case, and more specifically one that is connected to a steadily growing culturalization of the EU youth policy. Nevertheless, the above shift in the direction of the EU employment policies and even more the apparent difference between central european policies and national implementation, represent a more subtle, yet widespread multiplicity of, sometimes contradicting, policies.

Ioannis Papageorgiou


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