Religion & Liberty Online

Europe’s most pressing problem

“Most urgently of all,” asked George Weigel in The Cube and the Cathedral, “why is Europe committing demographic suicide?” Weigel’s book was published almost fifteen years ago, but his question on Europe’s infertility is as urgent as ever—even more urgent now, in fact. But have we learned yet? Weigel continued, “Why do many Europeans deny that these demographics…are the defining reality of their twenty-first century?”

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been mentioned before, even on this blog, but it needs to be said more often. Europe’s birth dearth, despite its gravity, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Imagine if this were as big an issue as climate change. We can’t go ten minutes nowadays without hearing about climate change, but we have to listen hard for voices that speak of the “demographic meltdown,” as Weigel termed it. That has to change.

Europe’s dwindling demographics are its most urgent issue. This is by its nature more time-sensitive and more basic than the problems that surround it. Not all agree—many of the people I’ve talked to about this, even conservatives, differ. I am still convinced of it, though. If there are no future generations, what happens? If you don’t solve that, there won’t be anyone left to solve the other problems for. Europe can’t have problems if there’s no Europe. It’s common among conservative thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic to excoriate the welfare state and excessive bureaucracy. Such criticisms are not misplaced, but even if the welfare state were to somehow end tomorrow, the demographic elephant would still be front and center in Europe.

European generations are smaller and smaller. That’s the problem. Why is the refugee crisis such an issue? Why is Europe in perennial economic trouble? Why is nationalism growing in Europe? There are far too many reasons to list, plus, I’m sure, many more that I’m unaware of. But looking away for a moment from these problems’ causes to their context, we can say: if Europe were having kids, those other problems would look less momentous. If the population weren’t aging and shrinking, it would be easier to assimilate refugees and immigrants. If there were a larger coming generation, there would be a more solid footing for future growth. If there were kids the older generations’ healthcare and pension costs would be easier to pay. And so on.

Perhaps this is being alarmist? It may already be too late. According to the 2017 CIA World Factbook, every European country has a fertility rate below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Some are close (such as France at 2.07) and many are alarmingly low (for instance, Italy at 1.44 and Poland at 1.35). As noted in the Factbook itself, “Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.”

In Pope Francis’s speech to the European Parliament on November 25, 2014, he had this to say:

“In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions. Together with this, we encounter certain rather selfish lifestyles, marked by an opulence which is no longer sustainable and frequently indifferent to the world around us, and especially to the poorest of the poor. To our dismay we see technical and economic questions dominating political debate, to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings.”

Admittedly, the Holy Father’s reference here was broader than simply demographics, but that doesn’t make such ideas any less relevant to the issue. The decline of culture and the demographic winter are profoundly connected. Shifts in attitude, both individually and as a culture, can’t simply be legislated or mandated.

Angela Merkel even called Pope Francis after his Europe-as-grandmother remarks and asked if he thought Europe could no longer produce children. The Pope’s reply: “I told her yes it can, and many, because Europe has strong and deep roots.” Europe’s roots are indeed too rich and deep to count out the possibility of change. The question is whether Europe, as a civilization and as a culture, will want to.

(Homepage photo credit: public domain.)

Joshua Gregor

Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.