It is a great pleasure to have been invited to speak to you.
Today, what I should like to do is describe some of the advantages of the extension of the Parliament pilot project – the Apprenticeship Mobility Project or the Erasmus Pro initiative – and to argue for the allocation of adequate funds to enable apprentices to stay for a longer period in the foreign host countries they visit. So, let me begin with this question: how much longer will it be possible for us to trumpet our belief that the European Union is actively laying the grounds for a future Europe when we leave so many young people without work? Unemployment among the young is a cancer that is eating away at our society and is a source of constant distress to those that must live with its consequences.
This week, the event that has brought us together is a very welcome initiative on the part of the Commission. Allow me, Commissioner, to both thank you for – and to congratulate you on – having made this Skills Week possible. I fully measure the personal commitment that you and your staff have to tackling youth unemployment.
Yes, unemployment is a scourge in any society – and none the less so – when it affects our youth. It is a social scandal that must spur governments – as well as those responsible for public policy – into action. On average, one in four young people in Europe – in some countries one in two young people – are condemned to suffer from lack of work. It was in response to the growing awareness that action must be taken that governments across the Member States launched the Youth Employment Initiative at the end of 2013. The programme has enabled the Member States to decide themselves on the responses that they consider to be the most appropriate. Similarly, the European Social Fund has also been deployed in order to increase the amount of available funding. If these two initiatives have allowed us to make real progress, there are areas where improvements might be made. In many cases, public authorities have only managed to introduce stop-gap measures to deal with the most urgent difficulties at a merely local level.
And so, what has been the Parliament's response? The Parliament, for its part, has launched a pilot programme based on its awareness of two factors.
The first is that there is a whole series of European countries – Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark – that do not suffer from catastrophic levels of youth unemployment. These states possess a well-established tradition of apprenticeship that is deeply rooted in the country's economic and educational fabric. Switzerland – if it is not yet a member of the European Union – is also a country where two out of three young people are able to benefit from a direct pathway to employment and from the rigorous training that their apprentices receive on the way.
The second consideration involves the Erasmus programme, whose thirtieth anniversary we have recently loudly celebrated. It has been amply demonstrated that students who have taken advantage of Erasmus during their university studies – and, hence, have been able to move freely from one country to another – are better protected against future unemployment.
However, while apprentices are indeed able to benefit from Erasmus grants, their stay abroad generally remains only two or three weeks. It is for this reason that the Parliament has suggested that apprentices be allowed to pursue their training in a foreign country for a period of at least six months. This longer period will contribute to enabling apprentices to learn the language of their host country, while laying the grounds for the development of an active sense of European citizenship.
At the same time, all those involved in such a programme – young people themselves, institutes responsible for training as well as companies – will be able to compare best practices and regulations. They will also be able to gain familiarity with the full depth and breadth of the internal market.
A further advantage is that the programme will undoubtedly improve the status of vocational training, a form of education that is sometimes seen as being of inferior rank by both participants and family members alike. All who participate will find the experience enriching and will be encouraged to 'gage' the useful reforms that should be implemented.
Youth unemployment is by no means inevitable. Apprenticeships demonstrate that this is the case provided that they are organised methodically and ethically. We believe that such mobility will de-compartmentalize education and spread its benefits across the European Union. So, we also need to identify and analyse the sticking points and barriers that deprive participants from enjoying the advantages that such freedom of movement entails.
The pilot project that we have set up will allow us to test the effectiveness of the measures that we envisage.
The 2016 budget allocates a sum of 2.5 million euros to the programme. In close cooperation with your Directorate-General – Commissioner Thyssen – we have formulated a set of specifications that will allow training centres to submit applications. These applications are to be in the form of a partnership including at least two institutions located in separate countries.
The applications should also meet three requirements.
Training centres must, firstly, provide introductory courses in the language of the host country. Secondly, they should deepen both the general and professional knowledge of the young people that they have committed themselves to training. And, thirdly, they should have a network of companies available to them that approve of the principles embodied in the programme and are willing to open their doors to foreign apprentices.
The available budget should be allocated to meeting the expenses incurred by training centres that are successful in their applications and to ensuring that Erasmus grants are attributed to willing candidates.
However, in addition to this testing of the waters, we have also requested a review of the regulations and practices to be found across all EU countries and have asked the Commission to propose a European framework for apprenticeships. These steps are merely a condicio sine qua non if we are to effectively facilitate the mobility of apprentices in Europe.
Indeed, simple experimentation is not really an adequate response to the impressive body of rules and procedures that the Commission has introduced over time. Indeed, it is an understatement to say that our initial attempts have encountered multiple difficulties. The stumbling blocks encountered have included red tape, delay in the designation of centres authorized to take on apprentices over the longer period envisaged, as well as a lack of readily available Erasmus grants. To this might be added lack of harmonised regulatory frameworks, the fact that some apprentices were not entitled to remuneration in some countries or were deprived of social security cover. Similarly, there was a failure to take completed apprenticeships into account when granting diplomas. In this context, I commend the efforts made by the Commission's services to innovate in the matter and to enable us to bring our ambitions to fruition.
The enthusiastic pioneer is not so easily discouraged and – for us I hope – to encounter a difficulty is also to envisage a solution. Hence, we are currently submitting a request for new provisions in the 2017 budget. In what is now – I dare say – a fluid state of affairs, it is gratifying to note that, while the first phase involved 80 apprentices, the second phase will see 240 take to the road. There are 36 different training centres in 12 different countries that are willing to take these apprentices on.
The report that has been drawn up after the first wave of apprenticeships sheds some light on what still needs to be done. This first report describes the numerous sticking points and obstacles to overcome but also the pragmatism and the determination of those that have committed themselves to the project at all levels so far.
This commitment has meant that we have already been able to travel a considerable distance. As a result, it is with a sense of satisfaction that, today, I note – despite the manifold difficulties encountered – that the Commission has integrated our pilot project into its own programmes. To this end, 400 million euros has been earmarked for the long-term mobility of apprentices for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020. These appropriations – in addition to the funding of "Erasmus Pro" grants – will allow training centres to cover their costs. The aim is to allow 50 000 apprentices to complete at least six months of their training in another country within the EU.
The Commission has also gone further in issuing – on the fifth of October – a recommendation concerning "effective and quality apprenticeships in Europe". For all of these reasons, I feel duty bound, Commissioner Thyssen, to express once again my sincere gratitude for the initiative and commitment that the Commission has displayed.
The Apprenticeship Mobility Project is one of the most effective levers for promoting vocational training at a European level. It is a proven factor in enhancing work opportunities amongst the young. It offers young people a chance for personal fulfilment as well as an opportunity to speak a language other than that of their country of origin. It will allow them to acquaint themselves with Europe's cultural riches and the multiple horizons that Europe has to offer.
Vocational training improves competitiveness and growth in Europe and is one of the most promising investments in the future that we can make. Extending the period that apprentices are able to study abroad will undoubtedly contribute to the formation of a “social Europe”, one in which the grounds are laid for European labour law and improved vocational training. The added value that the project brings is amply illustrated by the enthusiastic reactions on the part of the apprentices themselves. That they should testify to having gained so much from the programme means that there should be no doubt about the value it represents. We should respond as best we can to their heightened expectations.
So, in this light, what are the next steps to take?
It must be possible to mobilize the cohesion funds, the ERDF and the ESF, to further extend and develop the project where necessary. Youth unemployment is a scandal that Europe must eradicate. The success of our project calls for a Copernican revolution both at the European level and in the administrations of the Member States.
The ambition that drives us requires backing at the highest political level by the European Council. I am hopeful that our governments will make it a priority – even if … to make real progress … will require us to overcome a mountain of regulations, controls and paperwork that would discourage the most daring.
The Member States, for their part, must understand that increased mobility of this sort – and not only for apprentices – requires convergence in laws and regulations.
It will be necessary to show determination and courage and to resist the conservatives that are waiting in ambush. If the task is immense, I am confident that we have the ability and the determination to see it through. All that is ultimately required is to have the courage of our convictions!
Thank you. Thank you very much.