It is no secret that Central and Eastern Europe is facing a depopulation crisis. Recent studies by the UN and scientific research groups, such as this Lancet study, have placed forecasts for the region’s depopulation at anywhere between 50 and 70 per cent by 2100, making it one of the most quickly shrinking regions in the world.
According to the UN’s statistics, over the next 10 years Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania are all among the top 10 most rapidly declining countries in the world, with rest of the region not far behind.
This scale of depopulation is something that no country wants. A shrinking and ageing demographic can create strains on healthcare and social support systems, while restricting the competitiveness and longevity of the labour market. This intrinsic relationship between population make-up and economic strength further influences geopolitical power, creating a large scale feedback loop.
Ultimately, this can disenfranchise youth – both economically and politically – amplifying emigration. Hundred of thousands of emerging Europe’s young people have already made their way west in search of better economic opportunities.
The region is not oblivious to this silent and increasing threat.
A poll conducted in Ukraine last year saw 55 per cent name mass migration as the country’s greatest challenge, which is a considerably telling statistic considering that the country is effectively at war with Russia. President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected partly on a pledge to reverse the brain drain, and like many other governments in the region, recognises addressing the issue as a top priority, with concerns over low fertility, emigration, an ageing population and the subsequent strains this can create on social security networks and infrastructure.
In an effort to overcome what, at this point appears almost inevitable, many of the region’s governments – particularly those of a more nationalistic and right-wing bent – are coming up with policies focused on raising the fertility rate.
However, this push to establish what some analysts have dubbed “baby factories” is not the answer. In some cases, these policies may even be making the situation worse.
In September last year, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán organised a conference which sought to find solutions to the region’s demographic decline.
“Mathematically it is not that hard to conceive that there is going to be one single last man who has to turn the lights out,” Mr Orbán told those in attendance, who included Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
While encouraging migration may seem like the obvious answer, many of the region’s politicians think otherwise. Mr Babiš is one of them.
“A good state is where people are not scared of the future and where the population is rising – but not as a result of migration from foreign countries,” he said at the conference. “I don’t wish to scare anyone but we must discuss the idea that we are facing extinction.”
Mr Orbán is infamously averse to migration, and a consistent proponent of a conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement”, which claims shadowy forces want to replace “native” Europeans through migration. Instead, he sees the answer to Hungary’s problems as simply being the creation of more Hungarians, placing the idea of large, traditional nuclear families at the core of government policy.
“In all of Europe there are fewer and fewer children, and the answer to this of the West is migration,” said Mr Orbán in his annual state of the nation address last year. “They want as many migrants to enter as they are missing kids, so that the numbers will add up. We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.”
For leaders like Mr Orbán the only way to avoid this “surrender” is to push women into having more children. But not only does this policy reek of those more associated with nationalist regimes of the past, it may also be ineffective.
In Hungary, a programme to nationalise fertility clinics has allowed women – provided they are heterosexual and under 40 – to access free IVF treatment. Moreover, the Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party has also handed out generous government loans to young married couples if they promise to have children. Each time a child is born, the loan payments are deferred and by the time the couple’s third child is born, the parents can keep the money. Procreation handouts don’t stop there: for women with four or more children, there is also a lifetime exemption from income tax.
For some, like Bettina, a 32-year-old teaching assistant in Mágocs, a town in the south of Hungary, this has made a big difference. “The loan is brilliant. If it wasn’t for this help then we would have to live with one of our parents, or in terrible conditions,” she recently told the Guardian.
However, for divorced or same-sex couples, not adhering to the tradition notion of nuclear family comes at a cost, as they are ineligible for the scheme.
Similarly, in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party’s (PiS) 500+ policy – introduced in 2016 – makes tax-free payments of 500 złoty (around 115 euros) per month, per child, from the second child onwards.
Unlike Hungary, however, Poland is less keen on IVF and has instead focused spending on fertility diagnosis and treatment, with limited results: one figure suggests that there were just 294 additional births between 2016 and 2019, despite considerable state funding.
Regardless, this big spending on fertility is spun as a symbol of national pride.
“In Germany, billions of euros are spent on support for immigrants, but here billions of złotys are spent on Polish families,” said the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, earlier this year. “This is a revolutionary socio-demographic project, and we are proud of it.”
While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of focusing on fertility to counter depopulation, it is already clear that demographic policies need to address the reasons for depopulation on a more holistic level. What is the point of spending billions of forints or zloty on fertility treatment and state handouts only to create a new generation of adults who, much like their predecessors, will head west?
Employment and economic stability have a much larger impact on the birth rate than any narrow fertility-based policies. For example, Estonia’s implementation of fertility-boosting measures appeared to be working when they coincided with a large drop in unemployment. Yet when unemployment began to rise again, the birth rate fell.
Instead of a nuclear family-centred response, a recent report from the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has outlined that human-centred labour market policies to combat unemployment and establish sustainable economic opportunities should be prioritised, in combination with a promotion of a healthy work-life balance, flexible parental leave, high quality care and investment in public services.
“[EU] member states with active family policies, which are diverse and reflective of their cultures, have higher birth rates than those which have none or weak ones,” explains Stéphane Buffetaut, a rapporteur of the EESC. “Such policies are part of a broader framework that guarantees their effectiveness: jobs, economic and social dynamics, a family-friendly culture, an adapted housing policy, an efficient education system, and environmental policies.”
The aim to counteract depopulation should therefore address the causes at a foundational level, making the country more livable to begin with. This mitigates depopulation at the root cause rather than with short-lived, band-aid solution.
“Most of the European population’s income comes from work, and without job creation, dynamic labour market perspectives, security in the labour market and quality employment it is difficult to establish a family and to provide them with decent living conditions,” says Adam Rogalewski, a co-EESC rapporteur. “This is why the most feasible and effective remedy to negative consequences of population ageing is neither focusing on higher fertility rates nor more migration, but rather increasing labour force participation.”
Similarly, a group of researchers and analysts from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), tell Emerging Europe that “migration is often the main cause of depopulation. That makes predicting future trends more difficult, since migration tends to fluctuate much more than the other components of population dynamics, fertility and mortality.” However, the group emphasised that, “we know, however, that one of the main reasons for migration (from emerging Europe countries) is the perceived lack of prospects for the future, economically but also socially.”
In areas such as the Western Balkans, youth unemployment rates are particularly high. In Bosnia and Herzegovina 33.8 per cent of 15-24 year olds are out of work, while Serbia is not far behind at 27 per cent youth unemployment. Overall, these statistics do not paint an encouraging picture for the region’s youth, and explains, at least partly, migration. A recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin indicated that as many as one third of young Serbians plan to emigrate.
“For countries already members of the EU, the ease of resettling in another EU country is likely to be an important factor, while for non-member states the lack of progress in countries’ accession to the EU may encourage migration,” explains Eduard Jongstra, the population and development adviser at UNFPA for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The global Covid-19 pandemic is only worsening these economic situations, and perpetuating financial inequalities. In this sense, blanket financial handouts that ignore economic inequalities, such as Poland’s 500+ scheme, will have little effect in counteracting the larger socio-economic causes of depopulation. Particularly, due to the universal nature of the benefit, targeting both the wealthy and the poor seems like a “rather wasteful distribution”, according to the UNFPA researchers. Furthermore, they found that in Slovenia, neither the introduction of a considerable increase in child allowance nor the introduction of a large family allowance increased fertility rates.
“One-time child bonuses without follow-up are among the most ineffective kinds of interventions, but remain the preferred policy instrument for governments in Eastern Europe to promote childbirth,” adds Mr Jongstra.
Moreover, in the absence of better-directed financial measures, encouraging higher fertility rates among poorer sections of society may merely perpetuate the poverty cycle and hence be counterproductive to broader depopulation efforts.
Another result from the worsening economic conditions is the perceived sustainability of these policies. If couples believe that the handouts will not last, it will simply change the time period in which they choose to have their children, rather than how many children they will have, reducing the policy to a purely short-term fix to a long-term problem.
These kinds of fertility-oriented policies can also be a drain on a government’s financial resources.
Mr Orbán, who is currently spending five per cent of the country’s GDP on what he terms a “family friendly Hungary” asserts that “without money, you can’t reverse bad trends”. Yet policies that have little real effect may simply deteriorate state finances.
For nations like Latvia, where the depopulation crisis is particularly pressing, the prevalence of migration for better economic conditions is not just international, but internal. Rural areas in the country are being deserted for Riga, with promises of better job opportunities and connectivity.
A similar narrative can be illustrated for most of the region, where the urban-rural divide continues to widen, perpetuated by a deficit in resources, infrastructure and capital flow in the countryside, pushing many into cities.
A 2017 report by the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion (ESPON) found that this trend is especially pronounced in emerging Europe, where 60 per cent of rural areas are experiencing depopulation, compared to 35 per cent of rural areas in Western Europe. This is no surprise when paired with data that suggests rural areas in the region are at a much higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, especially in Bulgaria and Romania.
This exacerbates divides and disparities within countries, contributing to a broader degradation of livability. Hence, a human-centred policy that focuses on raising and equalising livability is key for sustainable population distributions not only nationally but regionally.
However, for researchers at UNFPA, the problem shouldn’t be “how can a country prevent?” depopulation, but “how can it prepare?”
“From our perspective, it is not population numbers that are critical, it is the human capital that this population represents. This means that preparation for depopulation should focus first and foremost on strengthening the human capital in the country.” Rather, improving the quality of human capital is shown to be far more efficient than policies aimed solely at raising fertility.
Yet few countries are pursuing this “preparation”, and are much more focused on boosting population superficially, through births or trying to encouraging return migration.
For example, Mr Zelensky’s programme to draw Ukrainians back from abroad with preferential loans to start up their own business upon return, or Poland’s push to exempt those under 26 from paying income tax, in an effort to encourage them to remain, rather than emigrate. Again, these policies can only be effective in combination with a more holistic response.
Moreover, governments are only able to respond adequately to the issue if they have enough data. Without basic demographic projections, age structures and spatial distributions of the population, policies may be next to useless. While this may seem obvious, much of emerging Europe lacks significant data. Ukraine’s last census, for example, was in 2001: nobody has any accurate idea of how many people actually live in the country.
Policies based on increasing fertility are not only ineffective in many cases, but harmful to women, and hence overall livability, inevitably having the potential to drive further migration.
As the UNFPA’s Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Alanna Armitage tells Emerging Europe, “the UN’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency is concerned that the focus of some population policies currently being implemented in the EECA region could have a negative impact on women’s and reproductive rights. Despite the complexity of demographic change, most policies to ‘improve demographic trends’ in Eastern Europe remain focused on one principal demographic driver – increasing birth rates.”
Some feminists argue that policies placing women in a reductionist and patriarchal role, “rewarding” women for becoming mothers with large payment incentives and tax breaks can have negative impacts on perceptions of gender roles and female emancipation. Moreover, some fertility-based policies can work the other way, introducing retrogressive measures such as reducing legal term limits for abortion, mandatory waiting periods, counselling for abortion and/or restrictions on contraception, which can pose significant harm to women’s reproductive and mental health. For example, Poland’s strict abortion laws have led many human rights groups to raise concerns, yet in an atmosphere with an over-emphasis on fertility, the dialogue can remain distorted. Furthermore, this rollback on reproductive health can have disproportionate impacts on minority ethnic groups, such as the Roma.
Instead, what has been proven to work in regions like Scandinavia is the advancement of women’s reproductive rights and economic emancipation, again emphasising the importance of overall livability over targeted policies.
Research has shown that “women and couples in low-fertility countries generally state that they want more children than they actually have during their lifetimes. Improvements to their economic security will allow them to fulfill that desire at the time of their choosing.”
Generous maternity leave, the ability to combine work with family life, as well as financial independence makes a women’s choice to have children a lot more flexible and has produced positive demographic results. While Scandinavia is still suffering from depopulation, it is at a much slower rate than countries which place an emphasis on fertility.
The way forward
Not everyone in emerging Europe lacks a clear understanding of what needs to be done. Zoran Zaev, prime minister of North Macedonia until earlier this year, has said that: “we regret we don’t have a good birth rate, but that only comes if we improve our economy”. Mr Zaev cut his right-wing predecessor’s financial support for larger families. “There are good birthrates in countries where there is good social care and well-developed economies. Policies [encouraging large families] change nothing, it just means we spend a lot of money and tell our citizens not to work and wait for money.”
Similarly, Moldova, which is working with the UNFPA, is showing an understanding of what the future holds, and is focusing on managing population dynamics rather than fighting them. For the UNFPA researchers, this is a constructive approach in the face of discouraging prospects. Alas, North Macedonia and Moldova are the exceptions, not the rule. It’s time for policy makers elsewhere to grasp the idea that forcing women to produce more babies will not bring an end to demographic problems.
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