May 5, 2004
By Helle C. Dale
Certain Europeans threw a mighty snit when Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld quipped about the Germans and the French belonging
to Old Europe and the new countries coming into NATO and the
European Union being the New Europe.
Now, the wisecracking Mr. Rumsfeld was probably not thinking in
terms of demographics, but he did hit the nail on the head as
regards Europe's population growth. Europe's population is aging
and shrinking fast. For those who have found Europeans to be
hostile, nagging and anti-American in recent years, this may of
course not be the worst news in the world.
Yet, there is no denying that it is a real problem, with
repercussions beyond Europe's borders. Before long, declining
demographic trends will place expensive and severe strains on the
European economies, particularly on its health care and social
systems.Furthermore, additional ethnic tensions will result from
increased immigration and higher birthrates among predominantly
Muslim immigrant populations. This issue bleeds into international
relations, as we recently have experienced over the opposition of
many Europeans to U.S. policy on Iraq and the Middle East.
Consider a statistic published in The Washington Times a few weeks
back. One hundred years ago, Europe had 14 percent of the world's
population. Today it has 6 percent. By the year 2050, it will have
a mere 4 percent. While a few countries are holding steady, Britain
primarily, others are seeing dramatic decline. Nor will the 10 new
member countries reverse this trend. According to U.N. numbers, by
2050, the number of Italians may have fallen from 57.5 million in
2000 to 45 million. The Spanish population will have been reduced
from 40 million to 37 million.
Or consider Germany, a country with one of the lowest fertility
rates in Europe. According to projections by Deutsche Bank, even
with immigration at 250,000 a year, the German population will
decline from 80 million to 50 million by the end of this century.
By 2050, the greatest proportion of the German population will be
over 55 years of age. In German cities like Cologne, where today 25
percent to 40 percent of the population is of foreign descent, more
than half of the population will be of a foreign background by
Europeans have been in a state of denial about these facts, which
are deeply controversial politically. They are only now, ever so
gingerly, coming around to discussing the subject of the
continent's collapsing birthrate.
At a recent meeting in Venice of the Council for the United States
and Italy, demographic trends were the subject of an unusually open
debate. One speaker asked the pertinent question, "Who is going to
invest in an aging and shrinking society?" Solutions to the
European conundrum could be integrating immigrants better,
increasing the retirement age, cutting pensions and having more
children. Yet, all of these are third-rail issues for European
In the past few years, governments in France, Germany, Spain and
Italy have all attempted pension reform and run into outbreaks of
labor unrest as a consequence. Europeans, who love their long
vacations, also look forward to early retirements. And incentives
by the state to bring more children into the world, a path taken by
Sweden and France, may work for a while, but are generally regarded
as suspiciously authoritarian and paternalistic. With high
unemployment rates, young Europeans put off starting families until
they are financially secure. After that, an insistence on perfect
gender equality makes women less likely to "put up with" raising
Despite the fact that Social Security reform is a political hot
potato in Washington as well as in the capitals of Europe, the
United States faces much less of a problem. The United States has a
relatively high fertility rate, above replacement. It accepts and
assimilates more immigrants - 700,000 a year. And, this country has
greater numbers of older workers in the work force and fewer public
benefits. All of which in the long run adds up to a less generous,
but more viable, social system than those of Europe.
The greatest problem for the European Union will not be social
integration after enlargement, but how to reform pension systems to
provide for an ever-older population. The European Union's
enlargement to 25 nations was greeted with great fanfare all
through the continent last week, but it is hard to imagine Europe
experiencing a real renaissance - as many Europeans hope it will -
in view of its declining populations. Unless attitudes and behavior
change dramatically, the Europeans face "a slow but inexorable
'exit from history,' " as a report by the French Institute for
Foreign Relations stated a few years ago. How very European to put
it that way.
First appeared in The Washington Times
Certain Europeans threw a mighty snit when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quipped about the Germans and the French belonging to Old Europe and the new countries coming into NATO and the European Union being the New Europe.
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
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