Central Europe Dying Out?

15. 3. 2017

Assuming that current demographic trends are here to stay, every third inhabitant out of 30 million in Poland will have retired in 2050, whereas the combined population of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary will have diminished by as many as 12 million people. This is the prospective trigger for geopolitical collapse of the whole region.

Recently, Central and Eastern Europe have undergone sudden, negative demographic changes. The permanently low fertility rate, negative birth rate and prolonged average life expectancy are inevitably leading to a decrease in population and an acceleration of the aging of the population in the region.

The decline of the fertility rate is a phenomenon which is characteristic of modern societies. It is related with, among other things: the process of modernization, evolution of value systems, change of the role of women in society, access to contraception, as well as increased education and job market access for women. In fact, a decreasing fertility rate was observed as early as the 1920s in France. But that country was also the first to launch intelligent, yet costly, profamily policies; as a result of these policies, and in conjunction with an open immigration policy, the current fertility rate of France is the highest in the European Union, fluctuating around 1.95–2.0 (which is very close to the succession of generations rate of 2.1).

At the same time, Central and Eastern Europe, which has been witnessing deep socio-political and economic transformation since 1989 , does not give a thought to this issue at the level of policy-making. Also, the lack of wise pro-family policies, for example in Poland, have rapidly shaken the demographic security of the region.

As early as 2000, the countries with the lowest level of fertility in Europe were Bulgaria and Romania; there, the rate was fluctuating around 1.08. In Poland, this indicator amounted to 1.21 in 2007, thus placing Poland near the bottom for the 27 EU member states—at the moment, it is oscillating around 1.3–1.4. A report published by EUROSTAT in August 2008 warned that by 2060 Poland will have reached the top position in the EU for percentage of population over 65 with 36.2 per cent. In 2006 this age group constituted 13.5 percent. In this respect, Poland is closely followed by most of the states in the region: Slovakia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria and Czech Republic (all about 32 per cent).

If you also take into account strong trends of emigration of young people in some of the states in the region, plus deficient immigration, this will undoubtedly result in further, strong drops of population and adverse structural changes. According to the Eurostat forecast, the populations of Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania will go down by over 20 percent by 2050. As for Poland and Slovakia, this number is approximately 18 per cent. The population of Hungary and Czech Republic will decrease by 10 per cent compared to the year 2012.

In absolute numbers, this means that the total population figures of the four states in the region: Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary will, by the middle of this century, have gone down by 10–12 million.

What are the economic and geopolitical consequences of the fact that in less than 50 years, every third inhabitant Poland (inhabited by 30 million people) will be retired? Most of all, they include rapid decrease in total production, decline of GDP and, as a result, a decreased level of wealth for the population. As for geopolitical impact, Poland will probably lose some of its importance on the international scene. It is also plausible that its defence capabilities will weaken, whereas internally, it is bound to observe more conservative behaviours, as well as growing importance of pressure groups representing the needs of the elderly.

From the Baltic Sea to the Thames

One of crucial factors influencing the population drop in Poland and in the Baltic States is the post-2004 increase in emigration to Western Europe. According to the 2011 census, the number of Polish emigrants residing abroad for over one year (“foreign residents”) was 1.5 million. This means that, as a matter of fact, the population living in Poland amounts to less than 37 million. The same data also indicate that 200,000 Polish residents living in foreign states are children aged up to 14; this proves the occurrence of the extremely perilous phenomenon of establishment migration of whole families. In 2011 alone, the number of Polish residents in the UK went up by 12 per cent (from 545,000 the year before, to 614,000).

According to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, as many as 34,700 people left Lithuania in 2009. This is one and a half times more than in 2008. The real number of emigrants is however far larger than this. The results of the new census (2011) indicate a population drop of about 240,000 in the country. However, if you compare the data with statistics for countries hosting Lithuanian migrants, you can assume that the population drop is actually as high as 700,000 when juxtaposed with the reported situation in the 2001 census. According to official Lithuanian information, the population of Lithuania amounted to almost 3.5 million in 2011. As a matter of fact, considering the number of Lithuanian residents living abroad, this figure could be actually around 3 million.

When it comes to Latvia, the latest studies of the Latvian Central Statistical Office indicate that in the course of the last 12 years, the Latvian population has decreased by as many as 340,000 people. When compared with 2000, this means a 13 percent population drop. A comparable percentage population drop was also observed in Bulgaria.

The demographic security of Latvia– and similarly of Poland– is especially threatened by the fact that unlike immigration before the 2008 crisis, Latvians started leaving the country with whole families. In the long-term perspective, this will have a profound impact on the functioning of the state.

Firstly, the negative birth rate, along with the current migration rate will significantly accelerate the process of aging in Latvia, while the increase of pensioners will burden the state budget because of the benefits due to be paid to them. Secondly, Latvia is also jeopardized by its heterogeneous national composition. In 2011, the Russian minority accounted for 27 per cent of the whole population. This indicates a drop in the figure compared with data from the 2001 census, but still, Russians remain a very strong political and economic group within the society.

Toil Away and Get Lost

A solution to those negative demographic trends could be immigration. However, the sates in the region have applied, and are still applying, restrictive immigration policies, unfavourable to settling in their countries. Following 1989, immigrants appeared within the group of countries in much lower numbers than in Western Europe. Furthermore, their stay in the country was not linked to settlement, but rather to seasonal work, mainly in the grey market. It is estimated that, for instance, in Poland and in Czech Republic, approximately 500,000 immigrants per year, mostly from Ukraine, perform low-skilled jobs illegally. In Hungary and Slovakia, the estimates on immigrants working in the twilight zone vary between 30,000 to 50,000.

The majority of immigrants in those countries belong to a similar culture circle, thus making them somewhat “invisible” to the authorities and the society. The “visible” minorities, numerically smaller at a few tens of thousands of members, are Vietnamese, Chinese or Indian communities; they try to assimilate into the landscape of their host countries and fill niches on labour market, offering services mainly in the food sector and in commerce. Those minorities, for example the 30,000 Vietnamese in Poland and a comparable Chinese minority in Hungary, are extremely wellorganized internally and do not put effort into integrating into the host societies. This also makes them “invisible” to a certain extent.

In the cases of Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary, it’s worth paying attention to the fact that a significant percentage of migrants in those countries are nationals of neighbouring countries: Slovaks in Czech Republic and, to a lesser degree, Czechs in Slovakia. In Hungary, Romanian nationals form a particularly numerous group most of whom are ethnic Hungarians. They perform seasonal work and provide home care and nursing services.

You can occasionally hear the argument in Hungary saying that, in order to face the challenge of the forthcoming demographic crisis, the state should make use of the 1.5 million potential workers of Hungarian origin living in neighbouring countries. However, the prevalent view is that the migration processes could put the existence of Hungarian minorities in those states at risk.

Polish post-1989 migration policies have stressed the ethnicity and have been mostly aimed at creating repatriation opportunities for Poles from Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. In practical terms however actions taken did not include large populations of Poles in Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania. Maintaining their existence is one of the named strategic goals of Polish foreign policy.

Before It’s Too Late

One of the central instruments, aimed at decriminalization of illegal immigrants and enabling them to exit the uncertainty of informal work, are amnesty programmes (“regularizations”). Unfortunately, they have not been widely implemented in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Most of those countries did not even organize debates on these programs, whereas a negligible number of immigrants, who obtained legal status in Poland and Hungary, amounts to between 1,000 and 3,500 people. This proves that regularization has been used as a tool to control the inflow of immigrants rather than opening up to greater inflow and integration.

There are no easy solutions to guarantee demographic security in the region. Neither profamily policies alone (even based on the French model) nor liberal migration policy which is open to new-comers with various cultural backgrounds will constitute effective instruments as long as they are not used in conjunction. In short, what is necessary are both costly pro-family policies like those introduced in France and a liberal migration policy similar to the one applied in the UK or in France.

It is now clear that the German model of migration policy applied throughout the region has not worked. Germany faces as dramatic demographic prospects as most of the other Central European states. In 2050, the German population will go down from its current 82 million to 72 million. According to some forecasts it could even plunge as low as 66 million; 40% of the society will be over 60.

At the same time, France has the best demographic perspectives on the Old Continent. It will be the most populous European state by 2050, with 73 million inhabitants of whom only 30 percent will be over 60. Positive demographic trends can be seen in the UK as well.

Indeed, there is no other way. Poland, along with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, has to follow the steps of those countries of the Old Continent which supported the demographic development of their societies and were not afraid that the “strangers” might annihilate their ethnic identity. The question is, are we ready to do it yet?

Krystyna Iglicka

Krystyna Iglicka is a Professor of economics, demographer and is currently theRector of Łazarski University inWarsaw. Sheis also a Senior Fellow in the Centre for International Relations.

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