Sitting in a Brussels café after the First Forum on Europe’s Demographic Future, I’ve time to write some thoughts on the previous 36 hours. The European Commission brought together the Forum’s 400 delegates in the Charlemagne building for the first of a bi-annual series to discuss how the continent should respond to demographic change. The Forum highlighted some of the dilemmas confronting the Commission as it tries to prod member states to address the challenges of demographic change in Europe.
The first is that across Europe, there is not one demographic change, but many. Family structures are extremely varied even between north and south; varied national histories (e.g., EU-15 vs. the former communist bloc) have affected population trends, to say nothing of the differences in population size (Germany’s 80 million vs. Estonia’s 1.4 million). This demographic variety points to limits on what the Commission could achieve by issuing Directives; they risk being blunt tools for the task. A second dilemma is the limited policy scope of the European Commission; something which Commissioner Vladimir Spidla highlighted in the first session. As reflected in the EU’s Green Paper and ‘Communication’ on the topic, Commission activity and thinking in this area reverts to those policy domains where it has influence. This means workplace regulation, worries about public finances, but particularly, migration. Indeed, a major portion of the forum was given over to discussing the scope and cost-benefit of immigration as an antidote to demographic change. The topic was given far more prominence here than is typical in national-level discussions of demographic change, at least in the UK.
However, some topics crucial to demographic change just do not fall under the Commission’s brief. As Professor Mary Daly identified, in a presentation that kept delegates rapt, while the Commission can encourage family-friendly policies through pan-European legislation on employment, it is not the body to start changing attitudes to families and child-rearing. What becomes clear, however, is that even in its limited policy scope, demographic change is just one competing agenda among many for the European Commission. I was surprised to hear Commission officials talk about responses to demographic change in connection with the Lisbon Agenda – the EU’s plan to become more economically competitive. They are right of course – ageing populations do raise significant issues to do with economic competitiveness; but it was clear many of the delegates from charities and NGOs at the forum were not used to thinking about the challenges of an ageing population in such terms.
So what is left for the Commission is maybe to simply be a facilitator for the exchange of good practice, and to monitor and evaluate the efforts of Member States to respond to demographic change. These were the aims mentioned by Commissioner Spidla, and I think he is right. Much of the forum was given over to presenting examples of integrating ageing workforces, and similar experiments, and there was certainly plenty to learn.
And when all is said and done, the Commission can offer encouraging words, perhaps by offering some perspective on the demographic challenges faced by Member States; or reminding them of the words of the Chinese Government adviser specialising on that country’s demographic challenge, whose speech in the first session could be summarised as: “You think you’ve got problems!”