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Demographic challenges need EU-level action, say Family Ministers


EU ministers for demography and family policy met informally in GödöllÅ‘, Hungary, on 1 April 2011. The event took place in the context of the thematic week “Europe for Families, Families for Europe – Population Issues and Policies Awareness” organised by the Hungarian Presidency from 28 March to 3 April.

At the end of the informal meeting, the Presidential Trio (Spain, Belgium, Hungary) and Poland, the next holder of the rotating leadership of Council, signed a declaration about the impact of reconciliation of work and family life on demographic changes. The Hungarian Presidency also suggested that the European Union should declare the year 2014 as the European Year for Families.

European population to decrease from 2035

In his opening speech, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán called for stronger support for family policy at the EU level, and expressed his view that the EU should not build its future on immigration, and therefore, it has to reverse the demographic trends in order to remain internationally competitive.

Gabriella Vukovics, President of Hungary’s Central Statistical Office, pointed out that eight EU Member States already have shrinking populations, and immigration is the only factor that prevents demographic decline in several other counties. Calculations show that the population of the EU will start to decrease in 2035, despite immigration.

Ministers gave overviews of family support programmes and experiences in their countries. Several stressed rising fertility to a sustainable level is a great challenge. It can be met by allowing people to decide the size of their families and therefore creating conditions supportive of their choices.

Ministers also discussed the need for intervention at European level, even though demographic issues fall within national competences. Several Member States argued that fighting poverty was the first step towards tackling demographic problems. Ministers agreed that the matter required a multi-faceted approach, including more flexible working conditions, greater gender equality within families and adequate funding systems.

EU initiatives to tackle the challenges

EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, László Andor, presented the third Demography Report recently  published by the European Commission. The report shows that the Europeans live longer and healthier lives, but the number of citizens of active working age will start to fall next year. Birth rates, although slowly rising, are still low. The Commissioner stressed that “immigrants and a rise in the retirement age are equally needed, in order to respond to these highly complex challenges”.

He also highlighted two flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 Strategy that are aimed at curbing these adverse trends and helping families. The Agenda for new skills and jobs, proposes actions designed to raise the rate of employment among men and women aged 20-64 to 75% by 2020. “Under the European platform against poverty and social exclusion, the Member States are required to define and implement measures addressing the specific circumstances of groups at particular risk, such as one-parent families”, he added.

A new process set in motion

At the press conference after the event Miklós Réthelyi, Hungarian Minister for National Resources said: “We are delighted to note that even though family policy is the competence of the Member States, common thinking has been set in motion about addressing this matter also at Union level.”

The Commissioner Andor spoke highly of the event, and said, “The Hungarian initiative was instrumental in enabling us to continue our efforts at a new level, and upcoming Presidencies will also be able to deal with these matters.” The Commissioner also welcomed that the forthcoming Polish and Danish Presidencies have committed to keep this topic high on the agenda.