When will Europe look after its families?

Here is something for the inaugural European Union president, Herman van
Rompuy, to put his stamp on: the revival of the European family. The EU is very active in telling member states what to do about certain social issues -- for example, condemning a recent Lithuanian law which prohibits promotion of “homosexual, bisexual, polygamous relations” among children under the age of 18 -- but it is dragging its feet on the most important social issue of all: the protection and support of the family.

In its 2009 report on The Evolution of the Family in Europe, the Madrid-based Institute for Family Policies warns that the demographic crisis in Europe is worsening thanks to the collapse of family life, even while various organs of the EU issue statements calling for better family policies.

In April, for example, the European Commission called for “the development of a climate in society open to family needs and receptive to motherhood, and the creation of conditions for a better balance between work and family life.”

In 2007 the commission recommended that the European Parliament "encourage member countries to incorporate the family dimension in their economic and social policies". The Parliament responded by saying, "The future EU strategy must recognize the important role of family as a key social institution for the survival, protection and development of the child.”

IPFE warns against a piecemeal approach to the family -- such as we often see in policies on childcare or child poverty. It says:

It is therefore necessary to reorient the family policies which are developing the various administrations of the EU States, that they may also focus on the family as a social group, in order to facilitate the fulfilment of its tasks. A family policy that specifically addresses the family group as an emotional, educational, economic and social means, should not legislate solely in terms of individuals but in terms of people living in a family. A family policy limited exclusively to sectoral policies, or limited to comprehensive plans for family members as individuals will always be incomplete.

While there have been a few positive changes since IPFE’s 2007 report, many negative trends have continued. Here are a few of the downs and ups:

• Population growth is slowing and is largely due to immigration: 7 out of 10 new people in the enlarged EU (EU-27) were immigrants. In Spain, the immigrant population has soared to 10.2 per cent.

• In the last 10 years the number of people under 14 has fallen by 10.5 million while over-65’s have increased by 16.5 million. There are now 22 million people over 80 (4.4 per cent of the population).

• The average total fertility rate in 2007 was 1.38 children per woman. This was up slightly on 2005 -- thanks again largely to immigrants -- but still well below the average of 2.3 that would result if Europeans had all the children they say they want to have.

• Abortions occur at the rate of one every 25 seconds in the EU-27. In western Europe (EU-15), 1 in 5 pregnancies ends by abortion. It is the main cause of death, with 28 million abortions in greater Europe since 1990. Since 1997, Spain has had the greatest increase in abortions, while the number has declined markedly in Germany and flattened out in France. The UK is the abortion capital of Europe, with nearly 220,000 abortions in 2007, and the highest number of teenage abortions -- 48,150.

• The number of marriages continues to fall, and nearly 1 in 3 breaks down. One in three children are born outside of marriage (more than half in Sweden and France).

• Households are down to an average of 2.4 people, 1 in 4 consists of single occupant, and 2 in 3 have no children. Only 17 per cent of households have two or more children.

Net result? “An ageing society, with no children, empty homes, broken families and no values,” says the report bluntly.

However, it also analyses family policies and financial support for families in EU nations and contains a number of detailed recommendations based on family rights:

• Right of parents to reconcile work and family life.

• Right of parents to have the number of children they want.

• Right of parents to choose the type of education their children receive.

• Right of children to live in a stable home

There is a lot of informative and useful data in this report, all in graphic form, as well as policy ideas to consider. Let’s hope the EU gets up a head of steam on family support instead of bullying individual nations over policies that are designed precisely to protect the family.


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