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Does the EU’s recovery package actually include the next generation?

Melanie Bernhofer

Date: 18/03/2021
Despite its name, Next Generation EU does not involve young people at all. To rectify this mistake, the EU should finally appoint an EU Youth Coordinator who has an extensive role in ensuring more intergenerational justice in EU policymaking.

COVID-19 has had a serious impact on youth; some even speak of a ‘lockdown generation’. European youth are hit disproportionately by the crisis, both economically and socially. Within months, the EU youth unemployment rate had increased substantially, with some EU member states affected more than others.[1] Distance learning has become the ‘new normal’ for students across Europe, even though member states continue to face challenges in digital infrastructure, connectivity and guaranteeing equal access to online learning tools and platforms. In addition, the pandemic is not only affecting young people’s education, school-to-work transition and careers, but is also worsening their (mental) well-being.

Youth unemployment and lagging digitalisation in education are problems that existed even before the onset of the crisis. The EU has set up several initiatives and funding tools to address these, such as the Youth Guarantee to facilitate young people’s transition into employment, the European Skills Agenda to promote social inclusion, and an increased Erasmus+ budget. And although these initiatives and funds have been revised during the crisis to increase support for young people, it is not enough.

The pandemic is accelerating already existing challenges, and generating new ones at the same time. Disruptions in youth’s education due to school and university closures affect their chances of finding employment in the future. Younger generations have also fewer chances of transitioning from education to work successfully. And long-term unemployment is highly likely due to many industries closing down.

To address these old and new challenges, even more ambition is needed than before the crisis. And this ambition must be reflected in the EU’s COVID-19 recovery instrument.

The EU is overlooking young people in its recovery process

Will the COVID-19 recovery instrument, Next Generation EU (NGEU), live up to its name? Unless the right policy interventions reach Europe’s youth, they are likely to suffer long-lasting consequences of the crisis. Considering young people’s lack of political leverage due to the voting age and little to no representation in political parties, the EU27 must pay special attention to young Europeans in the recovery process.

The Recovery and Resilience Facility will manage and channel nearly 90% of the NGEU funding (€750 billion in total) through loans and grants until 2023. National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) are being developed and shall be submitted to the European Commission before the end of April. Besides the NGEU’s commitment to invest 37% of its budget in green investments and reforms, and 20% in the digital transition, the European Commission is asking member states to come up with their own specific ‘policies for the next generation, children and youth’. However, the European Commission is vague about what these policies should achieve, and has failed to set clear goals for EU countries when it comes to tackling youth issues.

Additionally, there is no mention of the possibility of youths participating in the development of NRRPs. The Recovery and Resilience Task Force (RECOVER), responsible for managing and overseeing this funding scheme, came up with guidelines for member states to follow in their NRRPs. These guidelines do not emphasise young people’s concerns enough or only vaguely address them in some objectives, such as the ‘Upskilling and reskilling of the working-age population’ or ‘Improving coverage of short-time work schemes and unemployment benefits’.

The Commission should finally appoint a Youth Coordinator…

To better involve youth in the COVID-19 recovery process, the EU should no longer postpone the appointment of an EU Youth Coordinator – a position the Commission proposed in the EU Youth Strategy 2019-2027. He or she would act as the Commission’s ‘contact and visible reference point for young people’, and make efforts to strengthen the youth perspective across various policy areas, provide advice on youth policy to the Commissioner in charge, and enhance awareness of the EU’s youth policies. The Coordinator would also lead ‘the new EU Youth Dialogue on the Commission side’, and process the results before sharing them with the relevant Commission and Parliament services as well as national policymakers.

…and expand their role

The introduction of the Youth Coordinator could be a first step towards more intergenerational justice in EU policymaking at a time when it is desperately needed. But there is also a need to entrust the new Coordinator with a more prominent role in the recovery process to ensure that youth is represented adequately.

In more concrete terms, the EU should expand the Youth Coordinator’s role in three ways:

  1. Besides engaging with EU institutions continuously to strengthen young people’s perspectives across all policy areas, the Youth Coordinator should consult with member states and national youth organisations about the short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis on young people. As RECOVER does not include an adviser on youth policies, the Youth Coordinator should lead the national-level consultation with relevant stakeholders. This would allow the Youth Coordinator to better understand how youths specifically are affected by the crisis in different member states and the concrete actions the EU should take.
  2. Tackling the effects of the pandemic is a joint European effort. As youth policy remains a national competence, the Youth Coordinator should take a leading role as an intermediary between national ministries in charge of youth affairs to ensure that youth is a key priority in the NRRPs, especially in relation to education and unemployment. When brainstorming how to improve young people’s resilience against crises, member states can then exchange best practices with the Coordinator’s help.  
  3. The Youth Coordinator should establish a monitoring mechanism to assess national governments’ actions in tackling young people’s challenges. The Coordinator would evaluate the actions before sharing the best practices with all member states to further improve the recovery process.

To secure a future for Europe’s youth, the EU must improve the inclusion of their concerns and the prioritisation of their needs in the COVID-19 recovery plans. If European governments fail to do so, the EU would be abandoning Europe’s next generation at a time when they need additional support the most.

Melanie Bernhofer is Junior Project Manager of Connecting Europe at the EPC.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] While the EU youth unemployment average of under-25s is at 17.8%, Spain is at the top with 40.7%, and Germany at the bottom with 6.1%.

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