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EU leaders eye 'drastic' action to tackle jobs crisis

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

European leaders on Thursday tried to come up with new measures to tackle the crisis-hit continent's soaring jobs crisis, but the head of the European Parliament warned that the plans were "a drop in the ocean".

"We're here to fight youth unemployment, a most urgent concern for our societies," European president Herman Van Rompuy said as he opened the summit to which trade union leaders had also been invited to attend for the first time.

Shortly before the Brussels summit began, the European Union clinched a deal on its trillion-euro budget, which opens the prospect of the 27-nation bloc being able to quickly disburse billions of euros to help the one in four young Europeans currently out of a job.

"Today we have agreed on this budget that will make investment in Europe possible," EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said of the compromise that still needs to be approved by EU lawmakers.

"This is the growth fund for Europe," Barroso said.

The talks were briefly held up by Britain's demand for clarification on a rebate from farming funds -- an issue already agreed in February, EU diplomats said, with one source saying the issue "has all been sorted."

British Prime Minister David Cameron's reiteration of the rebate issue ruffled a few feathers but most leaders said the fallout of Europe's devastating economic crisis should take centre stage at the summit.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of Greece, which has the highest unemployment rates in Europe, said as he arrived for the summit that the key aim for the leaders was to come up with "drastic measures".

"Unemployment in countries like mine has sky-rocketed," Samaras told reporters.

The jobless rate for young Greeks is the worst in Europe -- at 62.5 percent -- followed by Spain at 56.4 percent, Portugal at 42.5 and Italy at 40.5.

Analysts warn the unemployment rate will continue to rise as the eurozone recession grinds on and that there is little the European Union itself can do, with much of the burden shouldered by national governments.

Among the measures being considered is a proposal to speed up disbursement from next year of a 6.0-billion euro ($7.8-billion) fund for young unemployed.

Other EU funds could also be tapped for such projects.

But European Parliament chief Martin Schulz played down the proposals being discussed.

"Releasing 6.0 billion euros to fund this new youth employment initiative is a start; but, as we are all only too well aware, that six billion is just a drop in the ocean," Schulz said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces elections in September in a country largely weary of funding struggling southern European states, warned that budget discipline remained key.

"The main thing here is about improving our competitiveness," she said. "It's not about creating more and more pots of money."

Europe-wide, talk of a "lost generation" and concern over popular discontent are feeding support for extremist political parties and fuelling animosity towards EU institutions.

A Pew Research survey last month branded the European Union "The New Sick Man of Europe", showing favourable opinion of the EU slumping from 60 percent last year to just 45 percent now.

"The European project now stands in disrepute across much of Europe," it said.

But Eastern European states continue to bid to join the bloc of 500 million people and Croatia on Monday will become the 28th EU member in the first accession to the club since Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.

Serbia is expected to win endorsement at the EU summit on Friday to begin membership talks no later than January after having agreed to tough conditions to normalise ties with its former province Kosovo.

Albania is also hoping its membership bid will win fresh support from elections over the weekend that were won by the opposition in a landslide in a vote that was being closely watched by the European Union.

But officials privately worry about including more troubled economies into the European system and citizens from the core EU states are increasingly opposed to enlarging towards the poorer east.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130627/eu-leaders-eye-drastic-action-tackle-jobs-crisis