BRUSSELS – EU leaders begin a two-day summit on Thursday aiming to put the worst of the eurozone crisis behind them with an action plan to tackle youth unemployment now hitting one out of four European youngsters.
Warnings of a "lost generation" – particularly in the worst affected countries of southern Europe – are adding urgency to the talks in Brussels amid record-high disgruntlement in the streets of Europe.
"We will focus on tangible measures," European Union president Herman Van Rompuy promised ahead of the summit, which officially kicks off at 1430 GMT.
The leaders are expected to speed up disbursement of funds already agreed for youth unemployment projects, as well as improving access to credit and increasing youth mobility across European borders.
"This is an urgent situation and we urge European leaders to act concretely to confront it," said Bernadette Segol from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) which is being invited to pre-summit talks for the very first time in a gesture highlighting the drama of youth joblessness.
As the eurozone recession grinds on, the youth jobless rate is highest in Greece at 62.5 per cent, followed by Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who has pushed for unemployment to be top of the agenda at the talks on Thursday and Friday, said the leaders would "fight a great battle, a European battle."
There is broad consensus on a proposal to speed up disbursement of a 6.0-billion-euro ($7.8-billion) fund starting in January 2014 in the regions where youth unemployment is above 25 per cent.
The leaders are also hoping to accelerate implementation of a Europe-wide scheme to guarantee a job or training offer for any young person within four months of their finishing studies or losing their job.
A proposal to use the European Investment Bank to help tackle the problem is proving more controversial and Letta said there was a "tug-of-war" with Germany over the proposals.
Marie Diron, an adviser at US consultancy Ernst & Young, played down expectations saying there was "little that can be done that would significantly reduce youth unemployment in the short-term."
The eurozone debt crisis may have eased, allowing governments some leeway on austerity in favour of growth, but the question is how far they can go without compromising hard won gains.
Germany, the bloc's biggest economy and paymaster, insists that strained public finances still have to be put right if the EU is to get back on track, while France under Socialist President Francois Hollande says growth is the priority. And the summit comes against a distinctly mixed backdrop – the European economic outlook is for further recession and the global picture is uncertain as concern grows over a possible credit crunch in China.
Borrowing costs kept low by central bank intervention are also beginning to rise and could go much higher, clouding the outlook for business and states whose debt burden will now only weigh heavier.
Summit participants are expected to discuss the state of play in efforts to create a banking union but further steps towards integration in the eurozone are likely to be held off until after Germany's elections in September.
The summit will also formalise Croatia's accession as the 28th member of the European Union on July 1 – even though the prospect of another troubled economy joining the EU is bringing little cheer.
EU leaders are also set to greenlight the start of membership talks with Serbia, a former pariah state that is back in the good books after normalising relations with breakaway Kosovo earlier this year.
Kosovo itself is also expected to get the go-ahead for talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU – a prospect that its foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj hailed as a "milestone." AFP