LONDON - Central European and Balkan leaders are in a panic about a demographic slump and are encouraging families to procreate in a bid to reverse declining birth rates.
Some of the encouragement of baby production is eerily reminiscent of past Fascist and Communist eras with appeals to patriotism and family values as well as generous tax relief and awards to couples who produce children.
Liberal critics accuse populist governments of using the depopulation threat to advance a nativist agenda and to turn the clock back on feminism. But government officials counter that unless they can preempt a population crunch and boost fertility, governments will not be able to cover the pensions and health-care costs of aging generations.
The struggle to boost native-born populations and produce more young workers to fund future welfare costs is being hampered by migration trends. Youngsters are leaving Central Europe in ever larger numbers for more affluent lives in prosperous Western European states.
In Hungary, where the fertility rate has plunged to 1.49 live births per female (the level needed to maintain population levels is 2.1), Prime Minister Viktor Orban has offered housing assistance and mortgage loan reductions in bid to encourage more births. Mothers are being offered lifetime income tax waivers for raising four or more children. Women marrying under the age of 40 can receive a $36,000 government loan with full debt forgiveness after their third child is born.
Last month Hungary’s populist leader announced the state takeover of six fertility clinics, which will offer free in-vitro fertilization treatment, or IVF.
Announcing free IVF treatments, which started on February 1, Orban declared fertility a matter of strategic importance for the country. “If we want Hungarian children instead of immigrants and if the Hungarian economy can generate the necessary funding, then the only solution is to spend as much of the funds as possible on supporting families and raising children,” he said at a conference in Budapest in January.
Poland’s Law and Justice government provides a monthly allowance of 500 złoty (about $125) per child to families after their first one. The country’s Law and Justice Party, or PiS, first introduced the allowance after its 2015 election victory, packaging it in a program dubbed Family 500+, which has become a model for depopulating neighboring countries also struggling to reverse declining birth rates.
But Central Europe’s new natalism is alarming feminists and liberal opponents, who worry that governments run by populist parties are boosting child-bearing and parenthood not only for economic reasons. They fear populists are using generous handouts as a way to buy votes.
And they accuse nativist populists, who say having children is a public matter and not just a private one, of wanting to return to a patriarchal era when women were limited only to a child-bearing role. They label some of the proposals as humiliating and degrading, and see the push for free IVF as something out of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling dystopian novel, "The Handmaid’s Tale."
“Can we just simply declare that Hungary is Gilead from now on,” queried Hungarian journalist Anita Komuves on Twitter, referring to Atwood’s made-up country.
Other liberal critics accuse Orban, who says he wants “procreation not immigration,” and Central European populists of using pro-natalist plans for anti-immigration purposes. Since the 2015 refugee crisis Central European states have resisted European Union refugee burden sharing proposals aimed at distributing migrants across all member states.
Unveiling last year a “Family Protection Action Plan,” which included several procreation incentives for young families, the Hungarian leader said: “There are fewer and fewer children born in Europe. For the West, the answer is immigration. For every missing child there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine… Hungarian people think differently. We do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children.”The Hungarian government projects that the fertility drive will lead to 4,000 extra births. And according to figures from Poland’s Central Statistics Office, there has been a 13 percent rise in childbirth since the PiS introduced initiatives to encourage more births.
But demographic experts are skeptical whether the Central European cash-for-babies campaigns will provide anything more than temporary bumps. They point to Russia as an example, saying that long-running cash-for-kids programs have done little to revive a population projected to decline from 142 million to 110 million by 2050.
Nonetheless, Central European governments are not alone in worrying about shrinking populations and the graying of Europe. Croatia, the world’s fifth-fastest shrinking nation, has made demographics a focus of its six-month stint running the European Union presidency.
Germany has sought to boost its birth rate by making life easier for young parents, with couples receiving generous allowance for two years after a birth, if they both work part-time. There has been a rise in the German birthrate but the population is still graying with the proportion of over-65s expected to increase 27.3 percent in 2035 from 21.6 percent in 2017.
But unlike Orban, Angela Merkel’s government sees migration as crucial in halting demographic decline in the workforce and is relaxing rules for businesses seeking skilled young workers from outside Europe.
Italy, too, is alarmed about its falling birth rate. The number of new births has dropped to the lowest rate since records began in 1861. Italian women are averaging 1.29 children, much lower than the 2.1 need to maintain the population. From this year the government will fund free nursery places for all children and is boosting child care benefits and extending paternity leave.
And cash-strapped Greece, which has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, is now offering mothers nearly $2,200 for every newborn child as well as tax breaks.