As the European Union emerges from the longest recession in its history, a generation of young people are left struggling under the weight of a crisis not of their making. Yet as youth unemployment levels soar in the UK, the Tory-led Coalition remains wedded to its failing programme of austerity and refuses to implement key EU measures that are proven to help.
As Labour MEP for one of the worst affected regions in the UK, I have made tackling youth unemployment a top priority and will do everything I can to ensure these issues are heard in the European Parliament.
Youth unemployment in the EU has reached record highs since 2008. A fifth of European youths are currently out of work - more than double the rate of unemployment overall. A lack of experience and their concentration in vulnerable jobs sectors has left young people particularly exposed to market shocks; their perceived disposability means that that when the axe has to fall it is the young whose necks are first on the line. This is no more evident than in the countries worst hit by post-crisis austerity measures: in Greece and Spain as many as one in every two under 25s is out of work.
It is in this context that the European Commission, following prolonged and heavy pressure from Labour MEPs and European socialists within the European Parliament, has placed youth unemployment at the forefront of EU policy.
A Youth Guarantee was adopted by the European Council in June 2013, based on successful schemes in Finland and Austria. Member States are encouraged to take an active role in securing the future of their young generations by engaging educational providers, employers, public authorities and trade unions to ensure that young people have the advice, skills and confidence they need to get a firm footing in the jobs market. Under the Youth Guarantee, European countries agree to provide all young people under 25 with a quality offer of employment, education, apprenticeship or training within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving full-education.
In the UK, where under-25s are now three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population, adoption of the Youth Guarantee is critical. Without a trained, supported and resilient young workforce, growing a strong economy will be merely a pipedream.
The government has ignored repeated calls to implement EU recommendations in the UK, instead insisting on continuing support for centralised, underperforming and unpopular domestic measures. A recent House of Lords report warned that the Coalition risks scarring an entire generation in its refusal to implement the Youth Guarantee, learn from successful experiences of other Member States and make use of the wealth of local expertise on youth issues across the country.
Targeted measures to support young people are particularly important to my North East constituency, which suffers from the highest rates of youth unemployment in the UK. Tees Valley and County Durham have been identified as one of five regions with unemployment levels so high that they qualify for an additional £20 million worth of EU funding, specifically to support our growing numbers of youth not in education, employment and training (NEETs).
As the Coalition government continues to block these vital funds it shows a dismissiveness that borders on contempt for the UK's young population. Though the number of 18 to 24 year olds has doubled since 2010, David Cameron continues to insist his plan is working. It's not: austerity policies have disproportionately squeezed the most vulnerable members of society, and with the worst of public spending cuts still to come, the future of our young people and of the economy as a whole looks bleak. Long-term youth unemployment costs the government £350 million every year
Enough is enough. Labour politicians want to see our young people lifted out of the shadows and prioritised once again as the drivers of growth. A Jobs Guarantee under a Labour government would guarantee starter jobs and training for all young people out of work for a year, funded by a tax on bank bonuses and restrictions on pension tax relief for the wealthiest citizens.
But it's not enough simply to reduce unemployment figures - this is about quality work, too. It's for this reason Labour MEPs are leading calls for a ban on 'zero-hours' contracts, which now affect a third of young workers in the UK. Hidden behind the guise of flexibility, these 'contracts' trap workers in a cycle of precariousness, poverty and dependence; it is no coincidence that the sharp wise of zero-hours work since 2010 has been complimented by a more than tripling of food bank use.
A government that is serious about building a strong economy must take decisive steps to improve the lives of our most vulnerable citizens and support our future workers. This means learning from our European neighbours, unlocking available funds and establishing a policy framework dedicated to tackling youth unemployment. The Coalition government has proven to be lacking in this area: only under a Labour government will we see the change the UK and North East so desperately need.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for North East of England