Unemployment in Europe: Brussels chafes over recession crisis: In the first of a series, Sarah Lambert reports on the growing frustration in the European Commission at its limited powers to bring relief to areas suffering from high unemployment

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WITH unemployment and economic growth now topping the political agenda in every EC country, there is growing frustration in Brussels that the European ideal, intended to bring prosperity and social cohesion, is being confounded by the length and depth of a recession with no obvious cure.

The European Commission, which has often proved the networking body for other transnational priorities such as environmental protection, is hamstrung in the matter of economic policies because it has no real power to initiate.

Its room to act stems mostly from its role in administering regional grants and the social fund, which is spent essentially on training programmes for the young unemployed or for those in particularly disadvantaged regions. The money is channelled through national schemes run by member governments or through smaller projects, again cleared through government departments.

In December last year, the last month for which full figures were recorded, 9 per cent of EC citizens were without a job. The rate of increase in unemployment was highest in Ireland (16.9 per cent), Spain (16.7) - where one-fifth of the working population is unemployed, many of them school leavers - the UK (10.1), and France and Italy (both 9.9).

The decline of labour- intensive industries suggests that even renewed economic growth cannot generate the kind of job- creation that can deliver political promises of full employment.

Long-term unemployment and the exclusion from the workforce of certain groups, such as women, are particular problems, although there are marked differences between countries.

Almost half all those unemployed in the Community in 1990 had been out of work for a year or longer and one-third for at least two years. In Italy, for example, 78 per cent of the long-term unemployed have never worked at all. About 18 per cent of the EC jobless are under 25. The phenomenon of youth unemployment is particularly marked in Spain and Italy, where the level is close to 30 per cent.

'We have to do something. We cannot live with 3 million unemployed in every major country,' pleaded Jacques Delors, the President of the EC Commission, recently, citing the social havoc that would result. 'At the very least we must learn to use leisure more constructively.'

Behind the scenes, the EC has, worked hard to try to channel what funding it has to the long- term unemployed in particular. The schemes run by the local authority in Waltham Forest, in north-east London, suggest that there may be useful spin-offs to a Euro approach. Unemployment in this London borough has risen by 114 per cent in the past two years to 16,400, around 15 per cent of the workforce. 'As well as the staggering increase in unemployment there has been a change in the profile of the unemployed, with increasing numbers of people from white-collar occupations,' said Alec Dick, an economic development officer with the authority.

Waltham Forest receives pounds 820,000 from the EC in grants, all of which must be matched by government funding. Of this, pounds 360,000 comes from the Human Resource Initiative Programme and is used on four projects, three of which aim to integrate, or reintegrate, people with learning disabilities into the workforce. One of the three schemes is run in conjunction with projects in the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland.

'The programmes are about sharing information, knowledge and experience across the Community,' explained Mr Dick. 'The original motivation for being involved in the programme was funding for our projects, but the transnational partnerships have turned out to be very valuable for us.'

Waltham Forest this year will also get pounds 460,000 from the European social fund for programmes of vocational training and guidance for about 2,000 of the long- term unemployed. These pro grammes include full-time skills training in such areas as information technology, business administration and catering.

Leading article, page 16

(Photograph omitted)