At a time when European leaders seem incapable of knowing what to do with the huge numbers of refugees and migrants turning up on their southern shores and borders, the Guardian has published an in-depth article chronicling the continent’s demographic “disaster”. The Guardian has no difficulty in seeing the irony in the juxtaposition of these two phenomena:
“…across huge swaths of the European Union, longstanding communities are disappearing and the social burden on the young is becoming unsustainable. Meanwhile, in Kos, Lampedusa and on the Hungarian border, tens of thousands plead to be allowed in.”
Of course, after reading that, one might nod and think, “How silly of Europe’s leaders, why don’t they open up their doors to these migrants and kill two birds with one stone?” There is something in that – if you don’t reproduce yourself from generation to generation then, in order to keep your ponzi-scheme style welfare systems going, you need to import citizens, workers and taxpayers from somewhere. But the social problem of integrating large numbers of ethnically, culturally, religiously and linguistically different migrants cannot be ignored. Especially in Europe where in many respects the nation state ideal was created to delineate between roughly homogeneous groups of cultures and languages (at least after the First World War – George Friedman’s article on this point is very interesting). If large ethnic minorities come into those roughly homogeneous groups, whither the nation state? So I am suspicious that indiscriminately welcoming migrants with open arms won’t create more social problems than the number of demographic problems that it might solve.
But the Guardian article is right in labelling these demographic problems as a “disaster”. As it explains:
“…a demographic crisis is unfolding across the continent. Europe desperately needs more young people to run its health services, populate its rural areas and look after its elderly because, increasingly, its societies are no longer self-sustaining.”
Spain’s population has been shrinking since 2012, Portugal’s since 2010. The number of Italy’s retirees as a proportion of the population is expected to grow five-fold by 2050. Germany has the lowest birthrate in the world per 1000 population for the years 2008-2013. Italy’s fertility rate has dropped from 2.37 in 1970 to 1.39 in 2013. There have been more deaths than births in Germany for decades (in 2014 there were 153,000 more) and by 2060 the German population is expected to fall from 81 to 67 million. Perhaps even more worrying for the industrial power is that in 2030 it is predicted that its percentage of workplace participation will have shrunk seven percent to 54 percent. And this is despite an influx of young migrant labourers (and perhaps 800,000 refugees coming to Germany this year alone).
Not only are countries failing to reproduce themselves (by 2050 Portugal will have only 11.5% of its population below the age of 15) but many countries are also facing large-scale emigration as economic factors and a global economy pull their citizens to greener pastures. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese have left their homeland (from a population of roughly ten million) while the number of emigrating Italians has doubled since 2011.
The one bright spot in Europe is Scandinavia which has managed to keep its birth rate closer to replacement levels due to “generous parental leave systems, stable economies, and, in the cases of Sweden and Norway, high net immigration”. Interestingly, the Swedish government points to demographics as one of the best arguments in favour of immigration:
“At a meeting in Brussels in June, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven enjoined other European countries follow his country’s example.
‘I am not going to sweep under the carpet the fact that it’s a major challenge at the moment,’ he said of Sweden’s high levels of asylum applications. ‘But it is also an asset. We must recognise that if we do not do this now, we are going to have a gigantic problem in a few years.’”
It’s certainly one approach to the problem – if your citizens are not going to have more children then the only way to stave off demographic (and social, and welfare-state) decline is to import citizens from elsewhere. Whether the rest of Europe will follow suit, and what that will mean for what we currently conceive as “Europe”, remains to be seen.