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EU leaders in Paris to tackle youth employment crisis

Youths hold a banner reading 'no job' during a demonstration against youth unemployment in Europe, hosted by the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), in Berlin, on July 3, 2013
Young people hold a banner reading "no job" during a demonstration against youth unemployment in Europe outside the Chancellery in Berlin on July 3, 2013

Europe's leaders gather in Paris Tuesday to discuss ways of tackling youth unemployment, in the latest of a flurry of meetings and measures since German leader Angela Merkel said the issue was the most pressing facing the continent.

The conference hosted by French President Francois Hollande follows a July summit initiated by the German chancellor in Berlin and is to be attended by heads of state or government from 24 of the EU's 28 member states.

Hollande advisers described the bloc's commitment as "very strong" ahead of the conference, which will also be attended by the heads of the European council, commission, parliament and investment bank.

According to the European Commission's latest statistics, the EU-wide youth joblessness rate stands at 23.5 percent. A total of 7.5 million aged 15-24 are neither in work, education or training.

The sting of the crisis is felt differently across the bloc. The youth unemployment rate is pinned down at 7.7 percent in Europe's healthiest economy Germany, but soaring past 50 percent in debt-crippled southern countries such as Greece or Spain.

Graphic showing unemployment levels in the eurozone countries with total figures the region
Graphic showing unemployment levels in the eurozone countries with total figures the region

Ahead of the July summit, Merkel pushed the issue to the top of the bloc's agenda by calling youth unemployment "perhaps the most pressing problem facing Europe".

She warned that the continent faced the emergence of a "lost generation", triggering a raft of measures aimed at reversing the trend.

EU members have pledged 12 billion euros ($16 billion) over the next two years while the European Investment Bank and European Social Fund plan to spend similar amounts.

Among the EU initiatives launched to tackle the problem is a "youth guarantee" scheme, whereby young people are to be given a job opportunity, further education or training within four months of leaving school.

Member states are to send in their plans for the scheme's implementation before the end of the year.

A French presidency source said the goal of Tuesday's summit was not to launch more tools but "to ensure that all means are deployed and confirm that the political will is there to obtain results within two years".

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert described the Paris meeting as a "first stock-taking" of decisions from the initial summit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande arrive for a press conference after a conference on promoting youth employment in Europe, in Berlin, on July 3, 2013
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande arrive for a press conference after a conference on promoting youth employment in Europe, in Berlin, on July 3, 2013

Despite the new sense of urgency among the EU's leaders, critics say that Brussels' moves to ease the crisis often lack boldness and tend to rely too heavily on German policies that are not easily replicated.

The focus on training can help Europe's youth become more employable but many observers argue no dramatic changes in joblessness statistics can be expected without economic growth.

Hollande, who is grappling with record-low popularity ratings, had made youth employment one of his mandate's top priorities. He has vowed a return to employment growth by year's end, but that looks an increasingly unlikely prospect.

Beyond their differing circumstances -- France's youth unemployment hovers around 25 percent -- the issue of worker mobility has recently poisoned the relations of Europe's power couple.

France on Tuesday is expected to seek support for a revision of an EU workers' directive to tackle an influx of low-paid labour.

France and other countries allege that current regulation allows Germany, which has no minimum wage, to employ millions of posted workers on "mini-jobs" with no social protection, creating unfair competition within the bloc.