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Minister Soares, Excellencies, friends,
It is a great pleasure to be here. I am pleased to see so many dedicated people in the audience today. You all have different backgrounds. Some of you are representatives of NGOs, some of you are academics, some of you are policy makers. It is important that we come together. We need to think out loud, and we need to find new approaches.
Today’s conference on youth employment and social entrepreneurship has been given an important subtitle: new ways forward. We are here to discuss how the social sector, in close cooperation with the private sector, can create new youth employment opportunities – through social investment, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Moreover, we expect a new EEA and Norway Grants period to be launched next year if negotiations are completed between the EU and the EEA countries. A new round of EEA Grants in Portugal will offer new opportunities for funding and bilateral cooperation, and for the sharing of experiences with the donor states Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
The question we are addressing today is a crucial one: How can we use the Grants to improve the situation for young people in Portugal and Europe as a whole?
The economic and social situation in Europe
The financial crisis hit Europe, and especially Portugal, hard. The last few years have been tough, but as we look to the future there are a few encouraging signs. Growth seems to have resumed in Europe, although it is still weak and uncertain.
According to the statistics, unemployment is slowly falling in Portugal; however, at 14 per cent, it remains high. And the rate of unemployment is even higher for the young. Youth unemployment has been consistently above 35 per cent for the last three years. These are not just statistics. This is a reality that is felt by everyone – in their everyday lives.
The financial crisis has hit young people harder than any other group, and the crisis seems to be lasting longer for young people. Of course, it would be far from the truth to say that all young people are unemployed. Many of them are studying and working part-time. Some have started full-time studies after losing their jobs. However, many young people have become discouraged and have withdrawn from the labour market altogether. They find themselves in a situation where they are not in employment, not in education, not in training. They are what some people call the NEETs.
Young people in this position face a wide range of difficulties. And there is no quick fix. Rather, a comprehensive set of policies and actions are required to prevent them from being excluded from the labour market. We need to examine our education systems and the training options available. How can we tackle high drop-out rates? Early school-leavers are a challenge in Norway, and this challenge calls for close cooperation between the education authorities and the labour and welfare authorities. And, of course, one of the main questions is what sort of approach should we use in relation to the young people themselves? We need to provide guidance and sound career advice. They need to know how they can apply for jobs, and where they can go to seek help. It is crucial that we facilitate a successful transition from the world of education to the world of work.
National policies are vital, but there are also regional and global trends that are beyond the scope of our discussions today. Through the EEA and Norway Grants, Norway wishes to focus more on young people who are out of work and out of school, and especially on helping the most disadvantaged members of this group gain a foothold in the labour market. Under the Grants framework for the 2014–2019 period, we aim to significantly increase our support for apprenticeships, entrepreneurship, innovation and the promotion of labour market mobility.
In order to strengthen the impact we can make in this area, we would like to hear your views on how the EEA and Norway Grants can supplement the contributions made by the EU and individual countries in the area of promoting apprenticeships and entrepreneurial skills. We would also like to hear your ideas on how we can develop new models of cooperation and stimulate social innovation.
The internal market as the key to increased growth and employment
The Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth identifies ways of reducing poverty and enhancing social inclusion and emphasises the need to create conditions that are conducive for growth in Europe. We share the priorities set out in the strategy.
The future of both our countries is closely entwined with the future of Europe as a whole. Through the Agreement on the European Economic Area, the EEA Agreement, Norway is an integrated part of the internal market. The internal market has served us well for the last decades. The four freedoms – the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons – have shaped the free Europe we know today. Our openness towards each other, our cross-border cooperation and trade – based on a common set of rules – has been essential in unleashing our potential for economic growth. The internal market is playing a key role in lifting Europe out of the financial crisis, creating growth, and creating jobs.
I am not alone in holding this view. As the new staff members at all the institutions in Brussels are settling in, including the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, increased competitiveness and growth is at the top of the agenda. This includes efforts to help get the younger generation back to work and help them find decent jobs. President Juncker has also made clear that making sure that young Europeans can fully participate in society and equipping them for modern working life is a key social concern, and crucial for Europe’s productivity and ability to compete globally. We have positive expectations that the new Commission will also think out loud and look for new approaches.
European Affairs are important to the Norwegian Government. In our strategy for cooperation with the European Union in the period 2014–2017, increased competitiveness and growth is one of our top five priorities. Another is higher quality education and research. We believe that these priorities are closely linked. Today’s knowledge will form the basis for our livelihoods tomorrow. We need to ensure that companies have access to a well-qualified work force, and we need to give young people a good education and relevant training opportunities.
Improving the situation of young people is essential. At some point, the younger generation will take the helm. It is vital that we let them gain crucial work experience and build independent lives.
Promoting the free movement of persons
The free movement of labour is one of the main pillars of a well-functioning internal market. Since 2004, Norway has been one of the European countries that has received the most labour migrants per capita. Workers have exercised their right to free movement within the EEA and have come to Norway to help fill the current holes in our labour market. This flexibility is an important part of the internal market. In the future, we may be the ones looking for work in other European countries.
It is important to promote the opportunities that exist abroad, especially for young people. Norway is part of the pilot project “Your first Eures job”, where EURES, the European Employment Services, helps young people to find a job abroad and to finance language courses and travel costs. I hope the project will encourage both wanderlust and eagerness to gain work experience. Work experience that can also be brought back home. Europe offers a wide range of opportunities.
The EEA and Norway Grants as an instrument in Norway’s European policy
The EEA and Norway Grants are an important political instrument in Norway’s European policy. The purpose of the Grants is to reduce economic and social disparities in the internal market and to foster bilateral cooperation. They make a significant contribution. Since 1994, we have allocated approximately 3.3 billion euros, out of which 1.8 billion euros have been allocated during the present period 2009–2014.
Around 97 % of these funds are provided by Norway.
The grants are offered to countries that are eligible for support from the EU Cohesion Fund. At present there are 150 programmes in the 16 beneficiary countries, one of which is Portugal. Through programmes and projects, we work closely with governments, the business sector, academia, other key stakeholders and civil society.
A special feature of the grants is the facilitation of programme and project partnerships between institutions in donor and beneficiary states. This provides valuable exchange of knowledge both ways.
Social entrepreneurship, examples from the funds
Our support for social entrepreneurship is provided through these joint programmes and projects. By stimulating social entrepreneurship, we also encourage the development of innovative solutions to societal challenges. We need NGOs and other organisations to help us find new ways of tackling these challenges. Youth unemployment is definitely one of them. How can we better prepare young people for the labour market? How can we help them gain a foothold?
Under the EEA and Norway Grants, there are already relevant projects in many countries. We have projects that examine the links between education, labour market demands, youth unemployment and mobility. What best practices exist? We are supporting a project called “Empower Youth” in Cyprus, which helps young people to start their own companies. It includes highly practical and interactive workshops, mentoring and professional support services. In other words, concrete measures.
In Portugal we are involved in a project with CAIS, the Social Sympathetic Association, that promotes social inclusion through integration into the labour market. The project is targeted at those who need help, at the same time as it trains the trainer – in this case technicians and volunteers, so that they can continue to provide support for those who need it.
These are just a few examples. Negotiations are now ongoing between the EU and the three EEA EFTA countries on a new five-year period for the EEA and Norway Grants. A new five-year period will enable a range of new projects to receive support. Today we need your feedback on how we can best use the Grants to alleviate the problem of youth unemployment. Your voice is important.
I started by saying that we need to think out loud, and that we need to look for new approaches. We have the opportunity to adjust our course at this crossroads – and to find new ways forward.
Thank you. Now I look forward to hearing your views.