Ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning everybody!
I would like to warmly thank Tanja Fajon and Franc Bogović, Members of this House, for taking the initiative to organise this conference, and inviting me to open it.
This invitation could hardly have come up timelier. In a few months, we will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU. This was a very special moment for our generation. Now, I am really glad to have the opportunity to meet the new generation of the Western Balkans; the one that I’m sure will succeed in completing accession and so enable the whole European family to reunite.
This generation is the best educated ever in the History of our Continent. The first one that grew up in a borderless Europe. The one that was offered opportunities like never before. And yet… over 4 million young people are today unemployed in the European Union. Many others in the Western Balkans countries.
How can this be possible? I think this conference constitutes a great opportunity for both policy makers and young people; to see what works and does not work in the rest of Europe, and to learn from each other. In this context, the first evidence that appears is that we are facing a huge lack of job opportunities; not only for young people, but actually for everybody. People have difficulties in finding a job, because the entire economy has difficulties in creating jobs. That’s why the Commission has launched the Investment Plan for Europe, which aims to fill the huge investment gap triggered by the crisis and so enable the business sector to create the jobs we need. Second evidence, we face a huge skills mismatch.
The skills acquired by young people in the education system do not match the skills demanded by the business sector. According to our information 40% of employers claim they don’t find people with the right skills. At the same time, we live in a world that is continuously changing, which requires frequent job changes, but also constant adaptation and upgrading of skills. And this leads me to the third evidence: our education and training systems need to be more in tune with the real needs of businesses.
This means that education systems should be reinforced, in order to allow them to attain three major objectives:
1. First, to give a solid foundation for life and active citizenship, in line with the values the EU aims to promote;
2. Second, to facilitate development of skills linked to specific activities, be they high-tech or crafts; and
3. Third, to facilitate acquisition of transversal skills, such as foreign languages, analytical thinking, entrepreneurship…, which are essential to acquire, keep and develop employability.
And it is against this background, ladies and gentlemen that the Commission has brought forward a New Skills Agenda for Europe. An agenda that stresses the role of vocational training and apprenticeship, in bridging the gap between education and employment; an agenda that is based on the conviction that we cannot waste anyone’s talent, because talent, and so skills, is an elevator to prosperity. And this, which is true for the Member States of the EU, is even truer for our partners of the Western Balkans. The European Commission is doing its utmost to ensure that they also benefit from our experience and our programmes. Because we are not just training our young neighbour… but I am convinced that we are training future citizens of the European Union.
Let me give you a few examples of this intensive cooperation.
First, we are supporting non-formal learning activities of young students and young workers.
Thanks to ERASMUS+, in 2015, over 3,500 students and staff from the Western Balkans got scholarships to the EU, which allowed them to acquire new skills, develop new professional perspectives and deepen their understanding of other cultures.
And the same happened for the over 2,000 people that did the reverse trip from the EU.
- Second area of work, we are closely working with national authorities in the Western Balkans, in the context of our dialogue on economic governance.2.And one of the main targets of this dialogue is the reform of education and training systems, to make sure they facilitate young employment and education. For example, Albania and Montenegro recently joined the European Alliance for Apprenticeship, which is supporting them in reforming their vocational training systems.
- Moreover, there are also various initiatives at EU level, which can be a source of inspiration for the Western Balkans, in terms of investing in employability skills, developing career guidance and counselling services, or simply facilitating joint work across ministries. These are, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, just a few ideas.
In the 18 months that have elapsed, since I took office as Commissioner for Regional Policy, I have felt a strong will to strengthen cooperation across the two sides of our borders. The Brdo conference of last year or the upcoming one in Paris in two weeks’ time are only the most visible milestones of this process.
The true strength of this process lies on the young people that are behind. People, like my own nieces, and unlike our generation, who discovered the Iron Curtain in history books… People for who borders are the exception and not the rule.
I am really optimistic about their ability to change the future and let the European family reunite once and forever. Let’s give them the means they need to achieve this dream for the benefit of the Western Balkans, and Europe as a whole. The European Commission will firmly stay by them in this endeavour.
Thank you – I wish you a fruitful conference.