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EUROPEAN UNION

Pleas for pragmatism as EU charts post-Brexit future

Senior European political figures appealed Sunday for the EU to set aside lofty debate as it struggles with Brexit-style populism, and instead to focus on measures which clearly benefit citizens.

Pleas for pragmatism as EU charts post-Brexit future
The EU has to do more to project its image, says IMF chief. Photo: AFP

Leading the charge, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble — a linchpin of the Berlin coalition government — scorned “political sermons,” institutional reform and changes to EU treaties as proposed fixes for Europe's faultlines.

“This is not a time for grand visions,” the 73-year-old veteran minister, long a passionate supporter of the European project, told Welt am Sonntag weekly.

“The situation is so serious that we have to stop playing the usual European and Brussels games,” Schaeuble said.

Schaeuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said the EU had to work “with speed and pragmatism” to unlock growth and thus create jobs.

He sketched initiatives from a common energy policy to job training to harmonising national defence procurements.

The CDU's coalition partners, the Social Democrats, meanwhile stressed strengthening the safety net for the poor or unemployed — two big factors in the perceived collapse of confidence in the EU.

The goal must be to “not only create competition but also social security,” said Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, describing the crisis in Greece as a pointer of a possible north-south split in Europe.

In the southern French town of Aix-en-Provence, the European commissioner for economic policy, Pierre Moscovici, called for “strong initiatives… to reinvent Europe.”

“Status quo cannot be a reply to Brexit,” he said, referring to the June 23rd referendum in which a majority of Britons voted to leave the EU.

The vote dealt a body-blow to European federalists, who want the bloc's states to come into an ever-tighter embrace.

Critics of federalism argue many citizens are hostile to Euro-centralism. They contend Brussels is not addressing concerns about jobs, living standards and migration.

Moscovici threw his weight behind widening and extending the so-called Juncker Plan — a scheme named after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker which uses EU funds as a lever for investment in areas such as energy, infrastructure and research.

The three-year plan, running from 2015 to 2018, has funds of 21 billion euros ($23.39 billion) from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank (EIB), with the hope that this will leverage private investment of 315 billion euros.

In its current form, the Juncker Plan “is probably insufficient, both in scale and timeframe,” Moscovici told journalists at a business meeting in Aix.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde, who also attended the meeting, said the EU had to do more to project its image so that citizens were more aware of some of the benefits of membership.

“When for instance the European Investment Bank makes very big investments in areas but doesn't say very much and people aren't aware of it, without there being a measure of Europe's economic effectiveness, that's incredible,” Lagarde said.

“It means that the talk will continue to be about 'excessive regulation, bureaucracy, it's all Brussels' fault',” Lagarde said.

Pollsters say regions of Britain such as Cornwall, Wales and Yorkshire which have been huge beneficiaries of EU funds were also those that voted hugely in favour of leaving the Union.

Lagarde said laconically that Britain's exit should simplify decision-making in the EU.

“Now that the English have, in inverted commas, left… at least there are a number of things that I've heard European commissioners say, one after another, ''it's so complicated — we can't do it because of the British',” Lagarde said.

“Perhaps there are now things that should be envisaged, as the British won't be at the negotiating table,” she said.

Lagarde did not elaborate, but French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said that the British departure could open the way to strengthening the eurozone.

“We have become a bit paralysed in thinking that there taboo geographical areas, and we have spent months and months not daring to meet as members of the eurozone, thinking it would upset the Poles and British.”

Moscovici reiterated ideas for boosting the 19-country eurozone, with a common budget and a “common economic policy.”

IMMIGRATION

How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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