Conference "Looking for a Perspective"

Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich

29 February 2016

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here.

Today, I would like to reflect with you on some of the most pressing challenges young people are facing in Europe. In particular, I would like to look at the role education and youth policies have to play in tackling youth unemployment, poverty, and exclusion. I would also like to outline how at European level we are responding to the refugee crisis and helping Member States integrate newly arrived migrants through education.

The next generation is our future, Europe's future. We hear this so often that it has almost turned into a cliché. Yet too often when we talk about the biggest challenges facing us today, we fail to mention young people. Our newspapers are full of articles about the economy, the situation on the job market, and the refugee crisis. But we say too little about how all of this is affecting young people. And what is more, we often do not take their specific concerns or views into account when we act.

It is true that today's young generation is on the whole better educated than any before it. They are growing up in a rapidly changing world full of opportunities. However, not all young people can grasp them.        

There are the haves and the have nots: of the 90 million young people in Europe, 27 million – almost one third – are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. 14 million are neither in employment nor in education or training. Despite some recent improvements, the jobless rate among the young is still over 40% in some countries; and across the EU on average one out of five young persons is out of work.

This is certainly not a recipe for social inclusion. Instead, I can see in this the seeds of alienation and marginalisation.

So where does this leave us? For me, it takes us back to the importance of education. Education opens doors to the labour market. Young people who have had the opportunity to pick up relevant skills from an early age stand a much better chance of finding a job. And employment is still the best safety net against exclusion.

That is why this European Commission has put education and youth employment at the centre of our efforts to boost economic growth and job creation in Europe.

Much of what we do in this field is focused on raising the level and quality of education and training. For example, we are continuing to work with Member States to reduce early school leaving and to raise higher education levels. By the end of this decade, we want to lower the share of young people who drop out of school to below 10% and increase the percentage of higher education graduates to at least 40%.

This means helping European countries to reform their national education systems so that schools teach the skills young people need to land a job. And this focus on educational reform and employability requires action in a whole series of areas: such as better training of teachers, more mobility and learning exchanges and closer partnerships between universities, business and research. All these steps can help prepare students for a successful career, for a life that they can take control of. And all these steps help to ensure that the next generation is engaged in the civic, political and social life of their community.

I have been working with EU Education Ministers to make stronger use of the tools we have at our disposal: our cooperation in education and training and youth policy for example, as well as our funding programmes, like Erasmus+ for education, training, youth and sport, and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions for young researchers.  

With Education Ministers, I have set new priorities for our cooperation, among them inclusive education, and with European Youth Ministers, I have agreed to focus our work on the social inclusion and civic participation of young people and better integration into the labour market. 

And there is more coming up. Together with Marianne Thyssen, the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, I am planning to present a Skills Agenda for Europe in May. This will be a response to the skills mismatch that locks too many young people out of the job market. But we will also look to the long term. The modernisation of higher education will play a crucial role here, as will digital skills and teaching entrepreneurship. The latter is particularly important to me, as it helps people acquire the horizontal skills that will serve them well throughout their lives and careers.

The stakes are high. Over the next decade, almost half the jobs employers will be offering in the EU will be for the high-skilled. And there will be a real need for digital and entrepreneurial skills.

At European level, we are providing funding, through programmes like Erasmus+, to help young people get that extra study or work experience abroad to increase their chances of employment. For instance, until 2020, Erasmus+ will provide 450 000 traineeship opportunities.

Going abroad to study or train makes students more confident, more adaptable – the characteristics that more than 9 in 10 employers are looking for. The figures do not lie. Five years after graduation, the unemployment rate of young people who studied or trained abroad is 23% lower than among their peers who stayed home. The effect is strongest in Eastern and Southern Europe – the regions where youth unemployment rates are the highest.

Mobility and free movement of people are fundamental to European cooperation. However, the reasons behind today’s mobility flows are not always positive. Recent data suggest it is often down to sheer necessity: people from Southern, Central and Eastern European countries with high youth unemployment rates go to a few countries with better employment opportunities – and to Germany in particular.

We need a Europe where it is not low quality education or dysfunctional or closed labour markets that force people to be mobile. People and knowledge should move freely because they want to acquire fresh knowledge and skills in new settings. It means we need education of high quality in all Member States as well as well-functioning labour markets that can absorb those making the transition from education to work.

Reforming education systems so that they enable Europeans to live their dreams is one step. Another is to listen to their views. A number of young people may have turned away from traditional forms of political participation. But they do have views, they are just finding different ways of expressing them. 

And I want to make contact with them through these new channels. I have made a pledge to reach out to one million young people by the end of my term as Commissioner. This will involve face-to-face meetings as well as debates on social media and the European Youth Portal that the Commission is running.

I also want all of us to make a stronger effort to reach out to those who are most disadvantaged. Because everyone deserves a chance in life. And because exclusion can lead young people to break off personal relationships, drift to the margins of society and sometimes even into violent extremism.

I will very soon present concrete initiatives that will help us reach out to these young people. This will involve strengthening youth work and volunteering, for instance.

I want to see our young people succeed. But for this we need to involve them and enable them to use their full potential.

This brings me to an issue I mentioned at the beginning: the refugee crisis. The arrival of more than 1 million refugees from countries with different cultural traditions and different languages poses a real challenge for the European Union.

The Commission is preparing a set of initiatives to support the integration of refugees and migrants, which it will present this spring.  Education will be at the centre of this. It has a critical role to play in helping refugees and migrants find their place in our job markets and societies.

These new arrivals need to be fully integrated in the education system, from early childhood education to higher education to adult learning.  We are supporting Member States in this. The Commission is working with national academic recognition centres from across Europe so they can share their experiences in helping refugees to have their degrees recognised. We want to help students to continue their education or map their qualifications as quickly as possible. Through Erasmus+, we will also offer online language courses, and we are working to make it easier for refugee researchers to participate in our Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions – as some of them might have difficulties with the eligibility criteria because of their refugee status.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Europe is facing tough challenges. The decisions we take today will affect the lives of our children and generations to come. We have a responsibility to get these decisions right.

Young people deserve a bright future. It is up to us to ensure they have the chance to make the most of their lives.

Thank you.