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Jobs - the European crisis

Gavin Hewitt | 15:26 UK time, Sunday, 3 January 2010

New EU President Herman Van Rompuy

A presidency, usually, is no small thing. It smacks of power, of ritual, of ceremony. Spain would have you agree. It has just taken over the rotating EU Presidency.

Next weekend, guests are invited to Madrid to celebrate the moment. European leaders like the presidency. They can revel in summitry, in receiving international figures, in appearing at the centre of events.

They hope, but it does not all always happen that way, that the flashing of the cameras will improve their ratings. The embattled Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will be no different. He needs all the help he can with Spain mired in debt and unemployment. Its construction industry has collapsed leaving four million out of work.

So what will the Spanish do with this six-month bubble of power?

The Spanish foreign minister has laid out some priorities: implementing the Lisbon Treaty, finding a way out of the financial crisis and initiatives to develop the rights and freedoms of EU citizens. Oh, there is also the matter of a Palestinian state, "the sooner the better", according to the foreign minister. And perhaps new openings for Cuba.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

All of these may be important or even desirable, but it's a fair bet that across Europe, if you were to tap opinion in the bars and brasseries, there would be surprising unanimity on what to do even with a sliver of power.

Jobs, growth, getting Europe moving again. The rest can go hang.

For out there, even as the recession recedes, it leaves in its wake a stunning crisis. Across large parts of Europe a young generation is without work. The stats speak for themselves. Youth unemployment in Spain is 42%. In Greece it's 25%. In Italy it's almost 27%. Ireland is around there too.

Such numbers, without hope, can have profound consequences for societies. This is not just a human crisis, however, it is a potential crisis for the single currency. This could be the biggest challenge for the euro. How do these countries stimulate their economies while having to reduce their deficits to comply with rules that govern belonging to the euro.

To be fair to the Spanish prime minister, he wants to make economic recovery a priority of his EU Presidency. The danger, for him, is that the EU appears too focused on its
internal structures, on making the Lisbon Treaty work. Already one survey suggests that two-thirds of the Spanish people have no interest in EU business.

Lithuanian protest over economy

The political risk for Prime Minister Zapatero is that he becomes the face of an institution that seems distracted by, for instance, setting up a new diplomatic service. There is another problem for Madrid: the wings of the rotating presidency have been clipped.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, which now governs how the EU functions, summits will be chaired not by Mr Zapatero, but by Herman Van Rompuy, the permanent President of the European Council. Mr Zapatero can't guarantee a seat at the final press conference.
Back home he could be judged an empty suit.

Mr Van Rompuy has already suggested an informal summit in February to discuss economic problems. There may well be arguments over whose power extends where and, if that happens, the risk is that the EU's leaders seem too focused on themselves and their institutions rather than on the needs of ordinary people.

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