The bitter and cheerless faces behind Western Europe's grim unemployment statistics turn toward Luxembourg June 11, where ministers from the 10 countries of the European Community have gathered to define priorities for fighting what will certainly be Europe's most explosive social problem in this decade.
The first EC meeting is devoted exclusively to unemployment. It has been pushed by the Netherlands for months but opposed by other countries as inherently useless.
At best, the meeting could set the broad directions of an unemployment strategy for Europe. At worst, it could become the brunt of public derision -- seen as a cosmetic exercise never meant to achieve anything concrete and mocking the plight of 8.5 million unemployed people in Western Europe.
The ministers from the new Socialist government in France, however, should turn the meeting toward substantive discussions. Since taking office last month , the administration of Francois Mitterrand has followed up on a campaign promise to develop a national program aimed at creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Nearly one-quarter of Europe's unemployed are in France.
A five-point strategy paper drafted by Ivor Richard, the Community's commissioner for social affairs, will be tabled for consideration by the 20 economics and social affairs ministers. This paper calls for "firmer action" to avoid abuses in Europe's welfare system; greater efforts to redirect human and financial resources to growing industrial sectors such as information technology and alternative energy resources; and tougher management of social funds, channeling money away from unemployment benefits exclusively toward job- promotion schemes.
Certain to attract attention at the meeting in Luxembourg today, however, is the commissioner's failure to devote sufficient, even cursory, attention to the two categories of workers most seriously affected by rising unemployment: women and young people.
Forty percent of the unemployed workers in Europe are under age 25, and in most countries, women outnumber men on unemployment registers by almost 2 to 1.
Unemployment rates, of course, vary from country to country -- from a high of 11 percent in Belgium to less than 1 percent in Luxembourg. But the rates everywhere have been climbing much more rapidly than forecasters had predicted. Only two years ago, at the Venice summit, EC experts were saying that the number of unemployed in Europe would not reach 7 million before 1981. Reality has outstripped that prediction by 1.5 million. In Britain alone, the number of jobless rose by 850,000 in 1980, boosting the unemployment rate from 5.4 percent in 1979 to 8.8 percent.
There are few illusions in Luxembourg as the EC ministers meet. Clearly, there are no blanket solutions that will apply to Europe as a whole. But the meeting could end by encouraging individual governments to chip away at their specific national unemployment situation with greater vigor. For many analysts, the answer will be found in shifting employment away from the traditional overcapacity sectors (steel, shipbuilding, textiles, clothing, and footwear, where 40 percent of Europe's labor force are still employed) toward new growth industries. Trade unionists see part of the answer in the 35-hour work week. Industrialists want more -- and cheaper -- money for investment.
But just as the human faces behind the statistics are growing increasingly bitter, the facts and figures themselves are becoming more and more discouraging.
European Community forecasters, setting "full" employment at 3 percent without jobs, say that to bring the number of unemployed in Europe down to 3 million by 1985, annual GNP growth rates of 7 percent will be needed. Some countries, including West Germany (once Europe's "locomotive" economy), are predicting negative growth rates this year. Even preventing the jobless situation from deteriorating further beyond what it is today will require annual GNP growth rates of 4.5 percent, the Community experts say.
It can be expected that governments will be taking a close look in the next few months at the impact of the relatively high unemployment benefits on the labor market in Europe. Unemployment payments in the Netherlands and France, for example, amount to more than 70 percent of wages (compared with about 35 percent in the US). Industrialists claim that high benefits contribute to what they call "qualitative mismatching" -- i.e., a worker's unwillingness to accept work beneath his skill level. Unionists argue that only 30 to 35 percent of unemployment can be explained away by mismatching.
Meanwhile, the jobless in Western Europe are becoming increasingly frustrated at government and European inaction. A people's march for jobs last month from Liverpool to London drew thousands of participants. Some forecasters are putting the number of people out of work in Britain by 1983 at 3 million.
Said an unemployed Belgian worker: "The fact that the European Community spends little more than 4 percent of its total budget on social affairs, including the unemployment problem, says something about our politicians' priorities. It also shows how far we have to go toward solving the problem -- and why workers in Europe are not very hopeful."