Christos Mouzeviris discusses the future of Europe’s population and how it will impact on the states that are losing its greatest asset – its youth. Can can this problem be solved? Some solutions exist but they require tough work.
Greece is the latest European country that is trying to tackle its ageing and declining population. The latest conservative government of the New Democracy party announced that from the start of 2020, it would pay each mother the amount of 2000 euros per new-born child. The Balkan country’s population is one of the fastest declining in the EU, a trend that has been made worse since the economic crisis. Unable to gain the means to raise a family, many of its young people decided to migrate and it is estimated that currently there are around 10.4 million people in Greece, down already from the just over 11 million a decade ago and it is projected by some experts to be reduced even further, down to 8 million people in the coming decades.
In addition, the population is not only declining, but it follows the continental trend of ageing. Fewer young people mean less workers and thus taxpayers needed to support the increasing number of pensioners. As result, not only are there not enough people to maintain a stable population, but the economy is also being placed under a huge strain. Greece is not the sole country in Europe that resulted in such measures. Hungary has also previously granted tax exemptions for couples with four or more children, together with many other benefits and subsidies. The central European country’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban, hailed this move as “the Hungarian way,” even though many in the continent condemning such solution of being similar to that of a communist regime. Despite this, Mr Orban has exploited the immigration and population question in the European elections of May 2019. He cited that Western Europe, under pressure from EU leadership, has accepted immigration as the solution to the continent’s population decline.
According to him, the EU wants to fill European continent with immigrants, primarily Muslim, and the result will be the “gravedigger of nations, family and the Christian way of life”. His government has repeatedly broke lines with its European partners when dealing with the refugee crisis and is overall very cautious towards immigration from outside of Europe.
Yet, the only EU countries that saw a healthy population growth during the previous decade was countries that accepted immigrants both from within and outside the EU. Ireland, Sweden and Malta, are among those. The opposite trend is observed in central and eastern Europe, where Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia and Lithuania are experiencing rapid population decline, due not to only falling birth rates, but just like in the case of Greece, emigration.
Since it joined the EU, Latvia – a tiny Baltic nation, lost about 18.2% of its population, set to shrink to just below 2 million people by next year. The main problem it is facing is the emigration of its youth in order to find work and achieve higher wages in countries like the UK, Ireland and Germany.
If this trend continues, Latvia will sadly live by its reputation as Europe’s “disappearing nation.” But this problem is not only confined in this country. The EU’s expansion to the east has exposed the continent’s huge income inequalities and opportunities for employment and growth, with a gaping East-West divide.
It is only natural that young people would seek to get higher paid jobs in rich western nations, however this reality should not become permanent. Both the governments of the new members and the EU itself should address the issue and encourage harmonization or salaries and living standards in order to encourage the emigres to return home and of course prevent the perpetuating of the problem. Another factor is that the new EU states are reluctant to allow or unable to attract a great number of non-EU immigrants. Nevertheless, if we accept that immigration into Europe could work when tackling our continent’s demographic problem, it itself brings some certain challenges. We are currently experiencing a sharp rise of xenophobia and populism, fronted by right-wing political parties that seem to gain ground everywhere in Europe.
If we only chose to balance the falling numbers of our population with immigrants, we risk making this problem worse and in addition, risking the very existence of the EU, our open borders and the rights of both native and foreign-born population.
It would be unwise continuing in this course, unless we are able to tackle populism and the far-right first, but that will require getting our economies in order. And that is because it is essential when dealing with such issues, to have a healthy, stable economy. When people are happy with their living standards, it is harder for populists to find fertile ground for their propaganda. Plus, to conduct reforms, you need good finances. We will have to look at Sweden, a country that to a certain extent, has successfully dealt with this issue. The Scandinavian nation has managed thanks to its economy, to support a different approach to its demographic problem. With a greatly subsidized, always-available day-care, generous parental leave shared by both parents it is among the EU nations with a population growth, with immigration playing additionally some part. Sweden’s success though requires not just robust finances, but also a radical review in gender roles, societal mentality towards childcare and family and a willingness of employers to accommodate such reforms in employment.
It is evident that Europe needs to tackle its demographic problem because if it doesn’t, its economy, stability and influence in the globe will suffer, and the continent will deprive itself of its current status of one of the most affluent regions on earth. Young generations are our best investment in order to secure a more prosperous future, despite the fact the human global population should ideally shrink. We have surpassed the seven billion earth human inhabitants mark, so a global population decline is not something that we should fear, but welcome. However, we will have to manage this new reality more efficiently if we wish to avoid a population collapse in Europe, with all the societal and economic consequences. We have achieved to live in a prosperous continent, with a consumerist and individualistic lifestyle, fuelled by capitalism and a market-based economy.
That is not a bad thing if we are able to balance better our work-family lives and set our priorities right. Thus, the solution to Europe’s demographic problem does not lie in one panacea, rather a collective response by all governments, a pan-European cooperation and coordination. Together with altering our family role-models or our work conditions like Sweden, we will have to help young couples and encourage them, should they wish to start a family by all means possible. Either it is tax relief like in Hungary, or a child bonus in Greece, combined with inward immigration and harmonization of wages and living standards across the EU, we can avoid depopulation of some of its regions. Resulting consequently, in a healthier and sustainable European population and ultimately economy and future.