Europe for Families, Families for Europe


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

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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