22nd June 2011
I am pleased the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs is present for this discussion on enterprise, innovation and job creation. She referred to reputation. Colleagues in other member states have told me how impressed they are with our new Minister of State following her visits to the Continent. I am delighted she is helping to rebuild our reputation.
I echo the Minister of State’s words about Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn who has taken an active role since taking up her job. The Commissioner’s portfolio is critical for Ireland. It is good for us to be seen in this light.
As Senators will be aware, I have been a member of the European Economic and Social Committee for 12 years and vice chair of the European Movement Ireland. Clearly, therefore, issues of a European nature are crucially important to me. Part of our success will be working together with our European counterparts and other member states. However, if I may make a slightly negative point, in working on European semesters we have a missed opportunity to target smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. All too often, the focus has been fiscal consolidation and labour market and pension reforms without consideration being given to how we can achieve inclusive growth or putting in place growth drivers to enable the fiscal consolidation to take place. I am concerned, therefore, by certain elements of the course we are pursuing.
I propose to focus on two of the flagship initiatives under the 2020 strategy, namely, the new agenda for skills and jobs and the Youth on the Move initiative. The latter tackles the high levels of youth unemployment across the European Union. When one considers the variation in youth unemployment rates – in the Netherlands, my husband’s home country, it stands at 4.3% whereas in Spain it is currently 20.5% – one sees the challenge facing us. While each member state faces individual challenges, the European Union must meet collective challenges in countering youth unemployment. As a flagship initiative, I am pleased Youth on the Move has been given its own space. All too often, when the subject of youth is discussed, it is done purely in the employment sphere and associated matters such as entrepreneurship, training and education are overlooked. Youth on the Move claims it will unleash the potential of all young people. To achieve this objective we must give young people a solid basis in life.
The Minister of State referred to sanctions. All too often member states are willing to agree to lofty ideals but unwilling to set clear and measurable targets. As I indicated, unemployment rates vary considerably across member states although many of the challenges facing them are the same. We could set clear and measurable targets and indicators for each of the member states. If they were not met, some form of sanctions should be imposed. The rewards would clearly speak for themselves. With regard to young people, I have concerns that in dealing with our economic crisis focusing on reducing sovereign debt, we are reducing public investment in education and training, the very areas we will need to develop in the future. The teaching of languages is very important as are what are often called the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We need to focus on attracting more young people to take up those subjects. The early study and career guidance looking at the labour market needs and the skills of young people and providing entrepreneurship at all levels of education are also important. The Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme was launched a few years ago and we could encourage more young Irish people to get involved. This Erasmus programme will give a young person the opportunity to go to another member state and look at opportunities of entrepreneurship there and bring them back. The Minister referred to the growth in the German market and we need to be thinking in this way.
I was in China recently with the Chinese economic and social committee. We were looking at areas such as inclusive regional development and the green economy. We often talk about our young people leaving Ireland and we see them as being gone forever. I was impressed that China is encouraging its young people to leave, but come back after a year or two and bring that knowledge back. That is a message we should be giving to our young people. While the jobs are not here, that will not necessarily be the case for life. We should be looking at training opportunities and upskilling. We should be exposing them to innovative and creative markets, and entrepreneurship. I recognise the Every Job Counts: Youth Solutions initiative to encourage entrepreneurship launched recently by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
We can learn from some of our counterparts in other states about additional training opportunities for early school leavers and low-skilled workers. We have an issue of access to apprenticeships. We are often told that the best way a young boy can get an apprenticeship is to join the Army, which offers some of the best apprenticeships in the State. We should draw on some of that knowledge that it does so well and create apprenticeships to develop those skills.
The validation and certification of skills across educational settings is very important. This is true not just of the formal education setting but also in the informal education setting – looking at us buying into European skills passports, etc., so that when our young people go to other countries they are able to transfer that accreditation and qualification.
The big questions are on the spending programmes of the Europe 2020 strategy, such as research and development, and education. I am very conscious that we are lining up in Europe for a battle royale. They are likely to be reducing funding across all our multi-funding spending lines. I know that next week Commissioner Barroso will announce the financial framework beyond 2012 and I know the battle lines are being drawn up on this debate. It is a crucial time for the future of Europe and for Ireland. This is funding that has benefited Ireland greatly but how do we ensure we can maximise it? I am concerned as to how we, as Senators and others, can support Ireland’s role in tackling the funding crisis that will potentially loom as the funding reduces at a time when we should be investing more.
I am organising an event in September with representatives from several member states. I will contact the Minister of State in that regard. We are trying to bring experiences from different countries to try to use that knowledge and hopefully come up with some creative solutions and ideas that can be used in several member states.