Europe has forgotten its families

Leaders of the 27 countries of the European Union are gathered in Brussels right now to hammer out a new treaty for the enlarged union. The grander idea of a constitution has been dropped, following rejection of a draft two years ago by French and Dutch voters, and because of deep scepticism about it in the United Kingdom and Czechoslovakia.

With trappings of unity such as a flag (blue with 12 gold stars) and an anthem (Beethoven's "Ode to Joy") shelved; with the idea of an EU foreign "minister" dropped and even the proposed charter of fundamental rights downgraded, the business of the meeting revolves around a new voting system -- hotly contested by Poland.

The thing you really need to know about the European Union is this. It
has deliberately and shamefully neglected the one institution that can
guarantee its future: the family.

But forget about the constitution and the treaty for a moment. The thing you really need to know about the European Union is this. It has deliberately and shamefully neglected the one institution that can guarantee its future: the family.

Although the European Commission has five vice-presidencies and 21 committees, none of them covers the family. The committee on Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities which should look after the family, doesn't, although it has a team with 47 portfolio activities and 33 non-portfolio activities.

In 1989 the Commission created an Observatory on Family Policies. In 1989 it was renamed the European Observatory on Family Matters. Then it became the European Observatory on the Social Situation, Demography and Family. Better than nothing, you say? Yes, but "nothing" was just around the corner. In 2004 that organ was closed down and replaced with the Observatory on the Social Situation and Demography. Period. Of the 95 Green Papers written since 1984, none has been on the family.

Not one.

All this despite the fact that a certain lip service is paid to the family. Article 33 of the (disputed) Charter of Fundamental Rights says the EU has a role to play in the debate on family policy, even if practical steps lie with the individual states. And quite recently the Economic and Social Committee recommended that member states should be encouraged to incorporate the family dimension in their policies.

While it is too soon to know what effect that will have, it is a safe bet that something more than a polite mention will be necessary to bring the family into focus for the EU. If they really want to look, however, the bigwigs in Brussels will find that the work has been done for them by the Madrid-based Institute for Family Policies, a group in special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Facts and figures

Co-opting experts in various fields, the IPF has pulled together the best available statistics to compile a report on the family in Europe that ought to be the subject of an urgent European summit. All the facts in this article are taken from it.

First, the big picture. With a couple of exceptions, natural population increase throughout Europe is static or declining. What population growth there is comes overwhelmingly from immigration -- accounting for 80 per cent of growth in 2006. With all these immigrants, the total population of the EU is not quite 500 million and is likely to decline after 2025. The United States alone has 300 million people and is likely to keep growing and overtake Europe.

Behind the overall trend are birth rates in free fall -- the EU average is 1.38; abortion rates that discard 3,385 children every day and make abortion the main cause of death in Europe; dramatic falls in marriage rates; mothers averaging age 30 at the birth of their first child; and climbing divorce rates affecting 21 million children over the past 15 years. On top of that is the greying of Europeans: already there are more people over 65 than under 14, and one out of every 25 EU citizens is over 80. The age pyramid of 1960 has turned into a rhombus.

All of this is known to the politicians and, to their credit, some states have taken steps to recognise the family as an institution. Ireland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Romania, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Italy and Malta have government departments more or less dedicated to the family. Other states are reluctant to build policies on the family -- no doubt because of liberal moral agendas -- even though social research shows over and over again that the family (based on the stable union of a man and a woman) is the best cushion against all the ills that afflict Europeans today: unemployment, illness, homelessness, drug addiction and social exclusion.

If we follow the money the picture is clear: out of every 13 euros of social expenditure, Europe spends only one on the family. This amounts to less than 500 euros per person each year. There are, of course, huge differences between countries, but the most generous country, Denmark, still sets aside only 3.9 per cent of GDP. For Spain and Poland the figure is less than 1 per cent.

Benefits per child vary markedly. In Germany a family with two children would be entitled to 308 euros a month, and 462 euros a month for three children. The same family in Slovakia, Poland or Latvia would receive less than 30 euros. And restrictions based on income "are so severe that the majority of families in countries such as Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain and the Czech Republic would not receive any benefit," says IPF.

Child benefits are crucial both to reducing child poverty and allowing families to have the number of children they want, which in Europe averages out to 2.3 -- a healthy margin above "replacement" level. The stinginess of countries like Italy and Spain, where birth rates are low even for Europe, is therefore hard to fathom.

Also difficult to understand is why, given that the Council of Europe has been urging it for many years, most countries make no provision for supporting families in crisis so as to prevent family breakdown.

Europe has fallen asleep and forgotten the family. The IPF has issued a wake-up call, mapping out a way forward in the last part of its report. Here are guiding principles and concrete steps for strengthening the family that only leaders in the grip of a death wish could ignore. If they could agree that Europe is basically constituted by its families, they may even find that the dream of a European constitution looks a lot more possible.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.


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