Why the young people of the Med are the best hope for the region – and for Europe

In a recent essay for the journal International Affairs, produced by the London-based think-tank Chatham House, political analyst Claire Spencer quotes The Mediterranean in Politics, a book written by historian Elizabeth Monroe on the eve of the Second World War. Back then, Monroe said of the Med that ‘its significance has been that of passage, or a megaphone, or a knuckle-duster. It has always been a route to somewhere, or the string which when pulled, reveals that its other end is in India, Vladivostok… or Mosul.’ That view, though it was expressed a lifetime ago, still rings true. The Mediterranean continues to be a conduit for migrants from far and wide; it is a region that dramatises and magnifies fractious debates within Europe; and it is a locus of conflict and upheaval – the ‘knuckle-duster’ of Monroe’s lively string of metaphors.

Illustration by  Costas Mantzalos

Illustration by Costas Mantzalos

Short-term education, long-term unemployment

And the problems affecting the Mediterranean countries have a disproportionate effect on young people. Education, as a province of youth, is one example. In the EU countries of the Med, young people receive on average ten years of schooling, while in the non-EU countries (particularly those in North Africa), the average is only seven years. So there is an education gap – made worse by the fact that many young people are displaced and in camps, where their education largely comes to a halt. This matters a great deal – and not just because those young people have a right to self-improvement. We need to understand that Europe will suffer if we let education in North Africa and the Levant erode. The population of Europe is ageing, and will need skilled immigrants from the Mediterranean. Hervé Le Bras, in his book L’âge des migrations, suggests that the EU will require 410 million migrants by 2050 in order to sustain the current European workforce as it grows old and retires.

So we need to stop perceiving the young people of the Mediterranean region as a socioeconomic burden. That is a false narrative born of bad politics. The truth is that they are an untapped resource. Unemployment at present in the region is sky-high, and 57 per cent of the young unemployed have been without a job for more than a year. That is a vast pool of talent and energy going to waste. Crucially, the traditional culture of the region – in particular the pan-Mediterranean institution of the extended family – provides both a survival mechanism and a potential route out of an economic impasse.

First steps to a youth-based economy

This is how it works. When times are tough, adult children go back to live with their parents, and the wider family becomes the source of a livelihood. At the most basic level, young adults might scratch a living by doing odd jobs for an uncle who has a shop or a small business. Simultaneously, the old pathways to financial security – a safe, salaried position with a company or government department – have dwindled. That changed career landscape forces young people to become more entrepreneurial – to found small start-ups in the formal and informal economy, for example, or to do multiple jobs: an ambitious and energetic young person might be a clerk in the morning and serve drinks in a bar at night.

This multifaceted approach to work fosters the kind of imaginative thinking and resilient attitude that the richer countries must nurture – because eventually the nations of the North will want to draw on all the experience and business nous that the pressed youth of the Mediterranean are amassing right now. And, in any case, the North has a business imperative to lend a hand: the Med is an integral part of Europe, and we cannot let it drift.

How can the potential of Mediterranean youth be fostered? There are various practical steps that we can take. Big financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank can use their leverage to get governments to change laws so that entrepreneurship can flourish. At present, it is a criminal offence in many Mediterranean countries for a business to fail or default. This is an absurd disincentive to creative risk-takers – the very people who need to be encouraged and facilitated. The banks can similarly insist that national governments take measures against bureaucracy and corruption: this is basic good governance.

Further, we need to create more gender balance. has been tracking women’s participation in the labour force, and the numbers show that there is still a long road ahead. In Cyprus and Israel, 60 per cent of women are engaged in paid work; in France and Spain the figure is 50 per cent; in Slovenia, it is 40 per cent; in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, it is 29 per cent (but rising). The lowest figure, 13 per cent, comes from Algeria. More generally, we need to find ways to get more women into schools, then into business, and ultimately into decision-making positions…

Towards a skills network

Technology will be central to future change. If ever there was an advance that belonged primarily to the young people of the world, it is the Net and the digital sphere. Electronic connectivity is vital, but this is not the half of it. Imagine the power of a European-wide web-based skill exchange, a database resembling a social media network that allows companies to access the talent they need, wherever it may be. Nobody has done this yet, but it is eminently feasible. Governments and businesses could insert skill-set needs and be presented with a range of candidates. All security checks and visa processing could be done remotely and electronically. A firm in Milan might then invite a young Tunisian, say, to come and work in Italy for a while – and would of course pay passage and a decent wage. On a large scale, this would amount to a way of managing migration that was of benefit to all the individuals and economies involved.

For too long we have been building walls – real ones and metaphorical ones – to keep out the young people on the southern fringes of Europe. The walls need to come down, and it is time to begin. 

Cleopatra was interviewed by Jonathan Bastable for