Europe for Families, Families for Europe

The most recent figures show an uptick in European birth rates. Is this a sign of renewed vitality in the Old World?
Vincenzina Santoro | Apr 19 2011 | comment  


Optimism about families is not a common sentiment at international talkfests. But just in time for the Easter holiday, the European Union issued a surprisingly positive snapshot of population developments.

According to the third “Demography Report” the EU population has now surpassed 500 million, Europeans are living longer, and most importantly, the fertility rate has actually been rising since 2003.

While a possible end to the “birth dearth” seems to have escaped the doomsayers, the latest data showed a rise in the fertility rate from 1.47 children per woman in 2003 to 1.60 in 2008-2009. Moreover, an increase was noted in all EU countries save three, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal. The largest increases over this period were observed in four of the former Eastern Bloc countries that had among the lowest fertility rates a few years ago.

The highest fertility rates in 2009 were recorded in EU aspirant Iceland with 2.23, the only European country to achieve or surpass replacement level of 2.1 children per woman; followed by Ireland at 2.07, France at 2.00 and the United Kingdom at 1.96 (2008). At the bottom of the ranking were Latvia (1.31), Hungary and Portugal (1.32) and Germany (1.36). Portugal had the dubious distinction of witnessing the sharpest drop in fertility, a factor that may have been due to the adoption of abortion on demand in 2007.

Europeans are also living longer. Life expectancy at birth in 2008 was 82.4 for women and 76.4 for men. France had the highest life expectancy among women at 85.1 while Sweden ranked highest for men at 79.4 years. Over the last 50 years, life expectancy rose by about 10 years for both genders.

Despite the pickup in fertility, the main contributor to population rise in the EU was immigration. As of 2010 there were 32.4 million foreigners living in the EU27 of which 12.3 million were EU nationals residing in another EU country. The country with the highest number of foreigners (7.1 million) was Germany while Luxembourg had the highest proportion of foreigners (43 percent) per population.

The longer living, rapidly aging European population has created new challenges for families while worried governments are anxiously searching for effective family-friendly policies. To deal with these concerns, Hungary, which currently holds the Presidency of the European Union, recently sponsored a conference entitled “Europe for Families, Families for Europe” at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Gödöllő, near Budapest. The conference featured scholarly presentations by eminent demographers, social scientists and others, and concluded with a “Family Festival with Europe.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán opened the conference on April 1 with surprising frankness. “Europe is losing in the demographic race of major civilisations,” as its population is aging and shrinking, he declared.

“Let’s call a spade a spade, our common home, Europe, is trailing behind great civilisations in this race… The EU should not build its future on immigration, instead, families and societies have to reproduce themselves, without external help to ensure long-term balanced and peaceful operation.”

Family policies are a national prerogative but the European Union can and does take legal action through the European Parliament to pass legislation that subsequently ends up in national parliaments for debate. Indeed, a few months ago the European Parliament approved an extended “mandatory” maternity leave.

The current status of family policy varies significantly from one European country to another. The most generous in terms of economic pro-family provisions are France and the Scandinavian countries. They offer ample child care services, both public and private, and generous maternity and paternity policies.

Giving the resounding success of lengthening life spans, not all the eldest are in good health and many require assistance of one form or another. What emerged from the latest European demographic research is that more than half of all “carers” are persons who are employed. Many of them, especially those who married later in life, are caring for parents and children while maintaining employment. Family leave policies will have to be more flexible to allow for care for both young and old family members.

The conference issued a declaration on work-life balance. Perhaps the most significant point was the following:

“In many countries, very often low birth rates do not reflect the childbearing preferences of women and men for various reasons, such as social and economic situation, gender inequality, and difficulty to reconcile work, personal and family life.”

Indeed, surveys taken a few years ago by Eurobarometer of women’s child preference came up with a majority response of two or three children. As to why women were not having the desired number of children, respondents listed many obstacles that still need to be resolved.

The theme of the family – in Europe and elsewhere – will be much more on the front burner in the next few years as the EU may declare a European Year of Families in 2014. In the past, much time and effort has been put into one form or another of “family planning” – an effort that continues at the United Nations. What Europe and other developed countries need today is more emphasis on “planning families.” The Budapest conference was a good start, seconded by the sobering data and analysis of the EU’s latest “Demographic Report.”

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.

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