Merkel hosts EU youth jobs meet under cloud of disunity
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted European leaders Wednesday to jointly tackle mass youth unemployment but the show of unity was clouded as EU heavyweights Berlin and Paris differed in their response to US spying claims.
While France -- angered over the US spying claims by fugitive US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden -- called for the temporary suspension of EU-US free trade talks set to start next week, Germany said they should go ahead as planned.
French President Francois Hollande days ago called for a common EU position on the spying allegations and said talks on what would be the world's biggest free trade area should be put on ice until there are guarantees the espionage has stopped.
While France on Wednesday suggested a two-week delay, Merkel's spokesman said that "we want this free trade agreement, and we want to start the talks now", adding that US-EU committees could jointly discuss data and privacy protection issues.
One French diplomatic source put the mixed message from Europe's two biggest players down to a blunder in communications, while another said Merkel and Hollande would discuss the issue later, on the sidelines of the Berlin meeting.
The disunity distracted from the central theme of the day: helping the almost six million under-25-year-old Europeans -- most of them in crisis-hit Spain, Portugal and Greece -- who have neither a job nor a training or education place.
The urgency of the wider eurozone crisis has been highlighted by renewed turmoil in Portugal, where the resignations of the finance and foreign ministers over unpopular austerity reforms this week have sharply driven up borrowing costs and caused stocks to plunge.
Merkel, a strong advocate of budgetary discipline during the eurozone crisis, has in recent months stressed initiatives against the chronic joblessness which in some countries has left around 60 percent of under 25-year-olds out of work.
In a newspaper interview on the eve of the meeting, she warned against the threat of a "lost generation" and called youth unemployment, which is near 24 percent across the eurozone, "perhaps the most pressing problem facing Europe".
But critics have maligned the Berlin conference -- which comes some 80 days before Merkel seeks a third term in elections -- as a talk-fest that aims to soften the image of the continent's austerity champion, both at home and abroad.
"Youth unemployment in Europe is a direct result of Merkel's one-sided austerity policies," tweeted her top election rival from the Social Democrats, Peer Steinbrueck, speaking for many critics who have demanded economic stimulus measures, not belt-tightening.
A meeting of European trade unions levelled the same charge, also criticising that the initial six billion euros ($7.8 billion) in EU funds earmarked to combat the problem is a trifling amount, especially compared to far larger bank bail-outs of the past.
The available EU funds are "like aiming a garden hose at molten lava," Michael Sommer, chairman of German trade union federation DGB, told the Passauer Neue Presse daily.
Merkel, opening the meeting of the 28 EU member nations, said that, while additional funds will be found in European social funds and programmes, "I believe that, just for once, money is not the problem".
"The problem is: How will we earn money in future? How can we give young people a chance? How can we give credits to small and medium enterprises at rates they can afford? In other words, how do we get the economy started again?"
Stung by past criticism that Berlin is dictating solutions to crisis-hit eurozone members, she added that "of course the different conditions of different countries must be considered, and that's what we'll do today."
© 2013 AFP