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Europe Faces Challenge of Aging Population


The population of Europe is aging faster than that of any other continent. In the coming decades, there will be only two workers or fewer for every retiree, putting huge strains on European pension and health care systems. Correspondent Michael Drudge examines the issues in this report from the VOA News Center in London.

Nearly every country in Europe is faced with the prospect of a population that is getting older, and eventually smaller.

Women in the 25-nation European Union are, on average, bearing just 1.5 children, whereas the average should be 2.1 children per couple simply to replace the current population.

A study by the Rand Europe think tank says the population trends pose significant barriers to Europe's 21st century goals of full employment, economic growth and social cohesion.

European governments are pursing different policies to deal with the challenge. France gives generous benefits to couples to encourage births. Britain, Ireland and Sweden have attracted more foreign workers. But governments have been slow to take more controversial steps, such as cutting benefits and increasing the retirement age for pensioners, who are also a strong voting bloc.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has already announced his own intention to retire from politics, says he will introduce pension reform legislation late this year that could eventually raise the British retirement age to 68.

In response to a question from VOA at a recent news conference, Mr. Blair said similar reforms are needed across Europe.

"I think on any basis the frank truth is that Europe's pension systems are going to have to be reformed and they are going to have to be reformed pretty radically," said Tony Blair.

From the British leader's viewpoint, workers are going to have to start saving more of their own money for their old age.

"The answer doesn't just lie in more taxpayers' money because the answer also has got to lie, and indeed principally lie, in people making provision for their own security," he said. "Now the problem, certainly, in the UK but also in other European countries, has been that there hasn't been the ability, the right vehicles, for people to go and save for their retirement. So that's the reason for the pension reform."

On the question of how lavish government should be with benefits to encourage couples to have babies, Mr. Blair, who has four children, says he likes bigger families but the matter should be left for couples to decide.

"I don't think you can do this artificially," explained Tony Blair. "It is not something I think that government can enforce, but it is obviously one of the purposes of having for people proper child care policies and enabling with better maternity rights and so on enabling families to balance work and children. That is one way that makes it easier for people to have larger families, which is a good thing."

One method of increasing the workforce is to attract more working-age immigrants. When the European Union expanded to 25 members in 2004, Britain, Ireland and Sweden allowed residents of the new members in without restriction, despite fears in some quarters that migrants would overwhelm their economies.

Britain alone has taken in more than 300,000 eastern Europeans, mainly from Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia.

The EU Trade Commissioner and former British cabinet minister Peter Mandelson says Europe needs more immigrants to complete globally and meet its economic growth targets.

"I think that other countries in the European Union should now look at the facts, learn from our experience and realize that removing barriers, opening ourselves to trade, opening ourselves to business is the best route forward for Europe," said Peter Mandelson.

But demographers play down immigration as a solution for Europe's expected population decline. United Nations statistics say Germany alone would have to take in three million workers a year.

A natural source of new immigrants for Europe would be North Africa and the Middle East. But that seems unlikely given the current tensions with Europe's existing Muslim populations.

Many native Europeans point to the riots in France last year, the controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and terrorist attacks in London and Madrid as reasons to not invite more Muslim immigrants.

There also is a segment of European opinion arguing that a smaller population on the continent will be a good thing in the long run.

One such advocate is Norman Myers, an environmental scientist at Oxford University. He believes that fewer European consumers will mean less exploitation of natural resources and degradation of the environment. That could leave a Europe for future generations with cleaner air and water and less congested cities than today's Europeans must deal with.