On 4 May the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted an opinion on ‘The role of family policy in relation to demographic change with a view to sharing best practices among Member States’. The opinion offers a timely reminder of the main demographic trends across Europe, outlines what an effective family policy should comprise and stresses the key importance the EU can play in the field. The text also supports the idea of making 2014 the European Year for Families.
The opinion is the result of a request by the Hungarian Presidency of the EU, which asked the EESC to advise on the topic. The presidency lays special emphasis on family policy and demography –from 28 March to 3 April it organised “Europe for Families, Families for Europe: Population issues and policies awareness week” . In this framework, the Committee held a hearing on 21 March, where a range of stakeholders were consulted on family matters, in order to improve policies and share practices between Member States.
Declining birth rates, women having their first children later, higher divorce rates, rising numbers of single-parent families and greater life expectancy leading to a rise in the number of dependent elderly people are main elements of the current general European demographic picture. At the same, there are strong contrasts across the EU in terms of both demographic situations and family policies.
In terms of fertility, none of the Member States are achieving the replacement rate, although two countries - France and Ireland - are not far off. While 18 countries are registering a natural increase, where births exceed deaths, nine are experiencing a natural decrease, where deaths exceed births.
Countries have varying traditions, needs, and social approaches, and since families, too, have different expectations. The motivation behind the policies also varies, ranging from moral and civic concerns in some cases, to political and economic ones or an emphasis on raising the birth rate in others.
The Committee stressed that comprehensive family policies include financial benefits for families, tax measures, but also measures to encourage equality at work between women and men, care and support services for children and other dependents, family rights in old age pension schemes and work-life balance measures, such as parental leave and the option to work part-time.
It stresses that even though the thinking behind and substance of the family policies in European countries may vary, they all share a common goal of helping families. It pointed out that comparing them and drawing good practices can be very useful, but for any of these policies to be fully effective, the services and support mechanisms they offer must meet the expectations of families, parents and future parents, the Committee warns. It adds that governments should offer measures that “give people a genuine opportunity to choose to have a family and to have the number of children they desire”.
The EU has no direct competence in the area of Family Policy. However, it can pass laws on balancing work and family life, equality at work between women and men, and child protection and development, the opinion, pointed out the text.
The EU has an important role to play when it comes to promoting and coordinating the exchange of good practice between Member States, and many initiatives and related funding arrangements are currently developed under the leadership of the European Union.
The Committe stressed that these initiatives could be better integrated and placed under the authority of - or at the least coordinated by - one body responsible for defining an overall policy and determining priorities for policy action and research. It was suggested that the role of conductor and coordinator could be divided between the European Commission, specifically via the European Alliance for Families, for the more policy-related aspects of coordination and management, and Eurofound, for the more scientific aspects.
The Committee also reminded that the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund have already been used to set up family policy measures in some Member States. This type of initiatives should be further developed and the family policy must also be fully incorporated into the European platform against poverty.