In Europe, the fertility rates are low. The average number of children a woman in the EU will have is 1.59, well below the replacement rate of about 2.1. Being an average, some individual countries are of course lower than this and some of these countries are the largest and wealthiest in Europe: Italy’s rate is about 1.34 and falling; Spain’s is about 1.3; while the powerhouse of Europe, Germany is at about 1.5. By the middle of the twenty-first century (will Ms Merkel have formed a Government by then?) Germany is expected to have had its population drop by 13 million. The proportion of its population which is working-aged is expected to shrink from around 60 per cent to 50 per cent over that same time period. Further East, low birth rates are not the largest problem (although they are certainly a problem), instead it is depopulation as millions of people leave to seek better-paid jobs in other countries. 17 per cent of the population of Poland and Romania (the largest Eastern European nations) have already left. In short, there are many serious demographic headwinds that the continent will have to weather in the years ahead.
One country that was always looked on as an outlier to this demographic decline was France. Western, populous and rich, France was seen as an example that the rest of Europe could follow to halt or even reverse its demographic trends. This is because, for many years now, France has managed to keep its total fertility rate steady at about two children per woman. Just about at the replacement rate and much higher than the EU average. However, this is no longer the case. The 2017 population statistics, just released, show that the average fertility rate for French women is down to 1.88. The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies has warned that, as a result of this lowered fertility rate, the “natural balance” (the difference between births and deaths is “historically low”. Indeed it is at its lowest level since the end of the Second World War. If this trend continues, then France will soon be nearing the European demographic average.
This is a concern for those who have seen France’s policy settings as the way to boost birth rates. Instead of offering cash to have babies, or granting longer maternity leave or giving tax credits, France created an extensive network of near-free kindergartens and schools. This gave greater flexibility for women to return to the workforce and meant that they did not have to so starkly choose between a career and children. But is this no longer proving to be so successful in propping up birth rates?
If France continues down this population decline track then its economic future will face large challenges: an unsustainable pension scheme; growing budget deficits as the tax base diminishes faster than expenditure; and declining consumer spending. One answer is of course largescale immigration to prop up the population. This answer will be one fraught with political difficulties in France and elsewhere in Europe after the events in the last few years. Merkel’s current political problems are at least in part due to her stance on immigration back in 2015. Furthermore, the numbers required to reverse Europe’s demographic decline is very largescale. Many more immigrants would be required than the one million or so people who made it to Germany in 2015.
So what will give? Will Europe continue down the path of economic and demographic eclipse? Will its citizens gain a renewed interest in reproduction? Will large scale immigration be turned to? Find out next week, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel. (NB Answers to these questions might take longer than a week to materialise…)