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More than half the European Union is in demographic crisis

Welcoming refugees will not quickly reverse the trend of more deaths than births in 58 percent of EU counties

The United States has worried about the aging of its population and declining birthrates, and this demographic shift has reached a crisis level in Europe, where more people are dying than are born in 17 European Union nations and more than half of their counties.

Research released today that compares natural increases and decreases in U.S. counties with subregions in Europe found that the U.S. is in a healthier demographic position.

In the first decade of the 21st century, deaths exceeded births in most counties in Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, as well as in Sweden and the Baltic states — a social shift that many believe is behind some countries’ acceptance of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Natural decrease is also happening in Portugal, Greece and Italy.

One of the few European nations to have more births than deaths in every county was Ireland, which has welcomed immigrants in the past decade. There are more births than deaths also in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Norway.

Meanwhile, natural decrease is happening in fewer than a third of the United States’ 3,137 counties, most of them rural. In contrast, 58 percent of Europe’s 1,391 counties faced a similar natural decline, and 41 percent experienced it every year from 2000 to 2010.

“We thought it was a big deal in the U.S. when it hit 30 percent,” said Kenneth Johnson, the senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy and the lead author of the report. “But in the U.S., one of the things that reduces natural decreases is the influx of Hispanics. In well over 200 counties, were it not for Hispanics, the population would be declining.”


But relying on refugees to boost the population of the young and women of child-bearing age is not the solution to Europe’s demographic crisis, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president emeritus of the Washington, D.C.- based Migration Policy Institute. The research appears today in Population and Development Review, a leading demographic journal, and on Carsey’s website.

But relying on refugees to boost the population of the young and women of childbearing age is not the solution to Europe’s demographic crisis, said Demetrios Papademetriou, a president emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

“There is simply no magic bullet,” he said. “Unless you can integrate refugees quickly, you’re not going to be able to do much … We’re trying to make marmalade out of what has come our way rather than growing, and [we’re] addressing demographics via refugee programs.”

Natural decrease and a lower birthrate are economic challenges because they deplete the ranks of the working-age population. Workers keep the economy going and pay for social services for the elderly.

Germany has agreed to take in 500,000 refugees a year and is expecting to resettle up to 800,000 this year. The United Kingdom, which does not face a similar demographic decline, will welcome 4,000 refugees over the next five years.

Papademetriou said European nations taking in refugees must help them succeed by integrating them in the labor market. “This crisis has been unfolding at such a rate that governments, even the richest governments like Germany … don’t have time to do anything else than to house people, try to get the little kids to school and try to find permanent housing for them.”

Beyond that, European countries must have more realistic expectations, such as increasing the retirement age to keep more people working or continue to provide incentives for women to have children.

Scandinavian countries have almost reached the replacement rate in developed nations of 2.1 births per woman, partly because governments offer attractive parental benefits. Mothers and fathers get significant paid time off when they have children.

The birthrate is as low as 1.1 in some EU countries.

“After you do all those things, you realize you’ll also need blood from the outside,” Papademetriou said. “You will need immigration … but for immigration to work, you have to have selective immigration of people who will work and contribute.”

Young immigrants bring not only themselves but also the potential for children in the near future.

“All of those countries are worried about this,” said Carl Haub, the senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau. “Germany has been that way for decades, and Germany has to raise its birthrate.”

But refugees will not change things overnight.

“In Germany, they’ll have to learn German, and it takes a while to become fluent in a language,” he said. “The children are a whole different thing, but you have to wait a while” before they can work and have children of their own.

The new research found that in the EU the average number of small children per 1,000 women of childbearing age is 261, compared with 371 in the U.S. And in the United States, 20 percent of women are under the age of 15, while only 15 percent of European women are. And less than 16 percent of the U.S. population is older than 65, compared with 19 percent in the European Union.

“We’re talking about significant changes in fertility,” Johnson said. In the EU “there’s not going to be many women to have the next generation of children. It looks pretty bleak.”

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