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More family-friendly policies needed if Europe is to avoid sharp population fall

Article by Dick Leonard

December 8, 2008

That is the headline message of an impressive new report, entitled Europe’s Demographic Future, just produced by the Berlin-Institute for Population and Development. Much the most thorough examination of the problem yet to be attempted, it is based on detailed studies of economic and demographic developments in each of 285 regions in all 27 EU member states, plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

A bulky document, it is profusely illustrated with tables and maps, the most striking of which is a map showing the fertility rates of every region. Those with a relatively high rate are shown in darker colours. These are mainly in the more northern and western parts of the continent – the farther east or south one looks the lighter the colouring of the map.

In no country shown is the average number of children born to women as high as 2.1, the rate necessary to sustain a stable or growing population. Iceland comes remarkably close, at 2.08, while the other Nordic countries, Ireland and France all have fertility rates ranging between1.8 and 2.0. The least fertile country is Poland, whose women bear an average of 1.3 children, though the most rural regions the country, as well as those of Slovakia, Bulgaria, northern Spain and southern Italy, all have fertility rates of less than 1.2.

The findings of the survey comprehensively refute two long-held views about fertility. Large families have traditionally been associated with Catholicism and the countryside. This may once have been true, but it is now the opposite. With the exception of Ireland, the Catholic countries now have the lowest birth-rates, and the areas of lowest fertility are in the most remote rural districts.

“Low fertility is not a natural law” says the report in explaining how it is that some countries and regions have achieved fertility rates far above the average for the continent as a whole. In every case it is because they long ago invested in family-friendly policies, which made it easier for women to bear and raise children, while not unduly compromising their employment opportunities.

In the Scandinavian countries, these date from the 1930s, or even earlier. In France, a conscious decision was taken immediately following the Second World War to proceed along the same lines, with the introduction of large family allowances, the provision of crèches and the exponential development of its health and educational systems.

Two inter-locking factors common to all the high fertility regions are the high proportion of women in the work force and rapidly rising educational levels. These are commonly found in the most advanced industrial countries, with one notable exception, of which the German authors of this report are uneasily aware. In a revealing paragraph, they say:

In France 18 per cent of 45-54 year-olds have a university degree. Today 39 per cent of their children, today aged between 29 and 34, already have the same qualification. In Ireland the figure has improved from 22 to 41 per cent. In Germany, however, which in any case has a low percentage of students for an industrialised country, this figure has even declined.

Strangely enough, most of the policies which Germany, and indeed Europe as a whole, needs to adopt in order to provide the necessary conditions for improving its birth-rate were included in the famous Lisbon programme adopted eight years ago. Each year since, the targets set have been reviewed by the European Council, and each year progress has fallen short of expectations.

It is time they were given a much higher priority. An intelligent and liberal immigration policy can certainly make an important contribution to the Europe’s demographic problem. Yet it is scarcely conceivable that anything like 50 million immigrants can be absorbed over the next four decades or so.

If a disastrous decline in the European population is to be avoided it can only be by taking energetic steps to bring the overall fertility rate up to the level that its most successful countries and regions already enjoy.

Dick Leonard is the author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.

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