On 28 October 2015, the Minister for Labour, Employment and the Social and Solidarity Economy and President of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO), Nicolas Schmit, spoke on behalf of the Council of the EU at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Luxembourg minister had been asked to reply to an oral question by Thomas Händel MEP (GUE/NGL) on the Council recommendation on integrating the long-term unemployed into the labour market. Nicolas Schmit had already replied a question for oral answer on precarious employment by the same MEP on 9 September 2015.
By way of introduction, the Minister said that the oral question put forward by Mr Händel was an 'illustration' of the debate on the European Semester which had just taken place. He stressed that this was 'a very specific issue which affects millions of Europeans, who are looking for concrete outcomes from the European Semester'. In the Minister's view, the European Semester is not 'an exercise in style' and 'if it is to have real political meaning, it must have an impact on those who have been unemployed for a long time'.
The Minister pointed out that long-term unemployment had doubled since the crisis, affecting 12 million people in the EU, with situations varying from one Member State to another. 'These 12 million people are a statistic, but behind that statistic there are individuals, families and lives that have been broken, and despair', said the Minister.
Nicolas Schmit asked how it could be acceptable for a person not to find a job for one or two years, explaining that long-term unemployment could 'become a vicious circle which acts to increase unemployment'. The longer a person is unemployed, the more difficult it becomes to find a job, stressed the minister.
'The real victims of the crisis are these unemployed people who do not have any employment prospects in view', he said, explaining that it was often women, older people or young people who were affected. For young people, the Youth Guarantee was not enough, he observed. Nicolas Schmit said there was a danger of these people gradually losing their skills and, as a result, their employability. The Minister feared that 'when the economy picks up, they will be the last to be taken on, and they even run the risk of not being employed at all'. He warned of the risk that they would leave the labour market, cease to be registered for work and that they would join the ranks of the inactive.
In Nicolas Schmit's view, it was therefore necessary to treat the long-term unemployed as a 'priority category'. Against this background, the minister called for the implementation of reforms to social and employment policies, together with broader strategic measures in the economic and budgetary sphere. He believed that a true economic recovery and measures based on demand were essential to reduce long-term unemployment.
In his view, 'the best recipe to combat unemployment, and above all long-term unemployment, is to create jobs, and what creates jobs is growth, the setting up of businesses and of economic activity'.
According to the Minister, however, growth alone is not going to solve the problem; also required is 'major investment in human capital'. 'This is the most crucial action in allowing these people to re-acquire the skills necessary to return to the labour market', explained the Minister, as he talked about the importance of a 'preventive approach'.
In this context, Nicolas Schmit pointed to the Luxembourg Presidency's aim of reaching a political agreement at the EPSCO Council in December 2015 on the recommendation on the integration of the long-term unemployed into the labour market, with a preliminary debate on the proposal having already taken place at the EPSCO meeting in October.
By way of conclusion, Nicolas Schmit called for the strengthening and modernisation of public employment services which often 'quit' when trying to deal with the long-term unemployed. 'It is important to develop an approach along the lines of the approach taken by the Youth Guarantee', he said.
He also argued for the construction of 'real pathways' and the creation of specific jobs to facilitate the return to work for the long-term unemployed. 'We need to invest in employment rather than in inactivity, because inactivity means exclusion, distress and poverty', concluded the Minister, stressing the role of the social and solidarity economy in helping the long-term unemployed return to the labour market.
According to the EPP, the causes of long-term unemployment are poverty, a lack of education, exclusion, a lack of access to information and, in particular, to employment services. However, despite what we know, long-term unemployment has been constantly increasing since 2007 'in an uninterrupted fashion, to the point that it seems inevitable'. MEPs stressed that it has not been possible to successfully reduce it, and that confidence is disappearing. In the view of the EPP, coordination and effectiveness must be improved, since after a very large number of studies and analyses, it is finally time to take action.
The S&D painted a dark picture of the situation: twice as many long-term unemployed as before the crisis; loss of human capital; social consequences such as marginalisation, poverty and health problems which are affecting public health; psychosocial difficulties and difficulties in finding their way back to the labour market. As for the Youth Guarantee, the MEPs said that more resources would be needed to combat long-term unemployment.
For the conservative politicians in the ECR, the NGOs need to be motivated and human resources need to be improved to help the long-term unemployed.
The liberals in the ALDE, on the other hand, stated that long-term unemployment is a challenge for all the Member States. In their view, the environment of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which create jobs, needs to be improved.
As for the European United Left, it welcomed the approach by Nicolas Schmit, although it would have liked to have seen mention made of the structural element of long-term unemployment and the responsibility borne by neoliberal policies. Their spokesperson said that all possible European funds must be used.
Finally, in the view of the Greens, there was nothing behind the concept of social Europe. Their MEPs wondered why a debate was being held on a Council recommendation which was not binding in any way on Member States.
Nicolas Schmit concluded that it had been a 'stimulating debate', explaining that the issue of long-term unemployment was an integral part of the procedures and recommendations of the European Semester. In his view, the Member States with high levels of long-term unemployment must develop action plans. According to Mr Schmit, there are some unemployed people who do not want to work, some who cannot work, as well as situations where work is not financially worthwhile, meaning that considerations must be made to an increase in pay.
The Minister stressed that it was the national governments first and foremost, and not the Council, that bore responsibility in this area. However, in his view it could be useful to facilitate national policies through European measures. Within this framework, Nicholas Schmit said, it was necessary to think, firstly, about resources. He added that some Member States may need aid.
He also added that the Youth Guarantee had targeted actions in countries where youth unemployment was particularly high, and that it was similarly necessary to target resources for action to combat long-term unemployment. The European Social Fund (ESF) ought to include this dimension. To get the long-term unemployed into work, however, the key change that is needed is to create jobs. Nicolas Schmit believed that here the social responsibility of employers was an issue, as well as that of the authorities, which must help employers to take on the long-term unemployed.
Concluding, Nicolas Schmit spoke of what he believed to be the real issue: the European social model, social cohesion, because 12 million people in long-term unemployment, for him, was a 'wound in the EU'.