• English

Strasbourg (France), 7-8 April 2005
Statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová,
Executive Secretary

Mr. Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address you at the opening of this Conference, which will deal with issues of critical importance for the future of our region. Europe has been in the vanguard of the profound transformation in population dynamics, known as the demographic transition. EuropeIt was the first to experience sustained mortality decline, followed by changes in reproductive behaviour and decreasing fertility, the phase of rapid population growth, and the so-called demographic “window of opportunity”. The baby boom after World War II created a second “window of opportunity”. Now the conditions are much different: most European countries are in the midst of a situation without parallel in demographic history, with fertility well below replacement levels and imminent, or anticipated, decrease of their populations.

According to the estimates and projections of the United Nations Population Division, the combined population of Europe proper increased by over 180 million between 1950 and 2000; it is projected to decrease by about 96 million between 2000 and 2050. This decrease will be most pronounced in Central and Eastern Europe; however, it is also expected to strongly affect Southern Europe. The shift from sustained population growth to decline will have far-reaching social and economic implications, as it will challenge existing social and economic institutions and ethnic and cultural balances. Some even argue that it will call into question the sustainable development in Europe and will put a strain on the social cohesion in our region.

The decrease of the European populations will be accompanied by further shifts in their age structures. Population ageing is recognized as the most salient demographic development of our times. It will affect the ways in which our societies and economies function. Let me illustrate the magnitude of the anticipated changes over the next five decades: according to the aforementioned UN estimates and projections, about a third of the populations in the fastest ageing countries, such as Italy and Spain, will be aged 65 and over by the middle of the century. As population ageing has substantial consequences for public and private spending, economies will have to adapt and grow at a sufficiently rapid and sustainable pace. For this to happen, labour force participation, employment rates and investment in modern, knowledge-intensive sectors have to increase. Social protection systems, in particular pension schemes, will have to be made sustainable, ensuring intergenerational solidarity and fairness, and economic security for older people. We should reconsider current efforts to reform the pension systems and prevent a weakening of the intergenerational solidarity, as certain generations might end up being net losers from the current reforms. In fact, in my opinion intergenerational fairness is a prerequisite for the long-term financial sustainability of a pension system if we want to ensure its social inclusiveness. The need to share the efforts necessary to cope with population ageing in an equitable way across generations was one of the important messages contained in the documents adopted by the UNECE Ministerial Conference on Ageing, which was held in Berlin in 2002.

Let me use this opportunity to highlight some of the other outcomes of the Berlin Conference. I believe key for its success was the all-inclusive approach to ageing that it adopted, promoting the development of a society for all ages through the strengthening of inter-generational and intra-generational solidarity, and calling for coherent and mutually supportive policies. In Berlin the Governments of UNECE’s member States made 10 commitments that envisage ageing to be mainstreamed in all policy fields, and include a series of specific policy objectives that need to be met concerning the labour market, the social security, health and educational systems, as well as the family and gender relations fields.

The very low fertility rates currently observed in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, but also in parts of Western Europe, are now in the spotlight of both policy-makers and the public at large. The experts gathered in Geneva last year for the European Population Forum, which UNECE organized together with UNFPA in the context of the ICPD+10 process, were of the opinion that this situation has been caused in part by a postponement of family-formation and parenting. This fact raises two questions: (1) firstly, will the cohorts experiencing the postponement ever “catch up” and attain the family size they would have desired; (2) secondly, and most importantly, could our societies further assist people in their parenting roles. That second question is on the minds of policy-makers in many European countries, who are in the process of reforming their family policies or who are considering doing this in the future. The need to create an environment free of barriers for men and women to freely decide on their parenting status was emphasized during the European Population Forum. The experts also pointed out that approaches to low fertility that do not protect and respect rights and choices will not provide a solution to population decline. In newly emerging market economies and economies in transition, low and decreasing fertility is strongly linked to the degradation of the standard of living, housing conditions and rising poverty, which urgently need to be addressed. The review of commitments made at the Millennium Summit, which will take place in September at the General Assembly, is a good opportunity for the assessment of progress achieved, not only in developing countries, but also in middle income countries including EME and transition economies (so-called MDG plus target review).

Another question that was addressed at the 2004 European Population Forum was whether European countries could compensate at least in part for the low fertility through immigration. The unanimous answer was that for social, economic and demographic reasons this could not be a solution, but it could be part of a solution. The experts attending the Forum emphasized that the migration context in Europe has changed considerably. International migration is affecting all countries in our region, be they countries of origin or destination, as migrant flows are intensifying and becoming more diverse. Although receiving countries recognise that for economic, social and demographic reasons immigration is a necessity, often their policies do not manage migration in a positive way, emphasizing instead control and repression. The importance of comprehensive approaches toward migration management and adoption of adequate integration policies is increasingly recognized. In addition, there is a growing understanding that the impact of migration and integration policies will be greater if they are coordinated at the local, national and regional levels and if all stakeholders, including the immigrant groups themselves, participate in the conception, implementation and monitoring of these policies.

Ladies and gentlemen, this region is very diverse in economic, social and other terms. The levels, trends and implications of demographic change vary significantly among various parts of Europe depending on the level of economic development, health situation, cultural background and other factors. One example is the dramatic differences in life expectancy between Western and Eastern Europe – on the average the life expectancy at birth in the countries with economies in transition is 7 to 8 years lower than that in their West European neighbours. Even though recently there have been signs of improvements, special efforts are needed to diminish this gap. Many of the countries with economies in transition face weakened health care infrastructures and restricted access to quality health care. They have also experienced growth of inequality and poverty, collapse of support systems and environmental degradation. These and other factors are behind unacceptably high morbidity and mortality levels in these countries, which are endangering economic and social development. The negative tendencies in morbidity and mortality are compounded by major irregularities in the age structures in these countries, triggered by the effects of wars, civil strife and population policy interventions in the pre-transition time. More importantly, the economic difficulties, the fiscal constraints and the vulnerability of the societies undergoing transition put to a critical test their capacity to adequately respond to the future demographic change.

All this underlines the importance of better understanding the causes and consequences of the current population trends in Europe and the need to respond to them through a coherent system of policy measures. UNECE’s work in the population field has always been based on the premise that effective policy making requires sound analysis based on reliable data. Hence, UNECE has implemented or coordinated various research and data collection activities aimed at providing an information and knowledge base for well-informed and effective policy-making. We have also organized a series of intergovernmental and expert meetings that have addressed population and related issues.

As there are numerous categories of stakeholders that can make a contribution to the formulation and implementation of policies in the population field, the need for cooperation between them is of crucial importance. This is why UNECE has always strived to work closely with a range of partners. Let me highlight in this context that the European Population Conference held in Geneva in 1993 as a regional preparatory event for the International Conference for Population and Development, was organised jointly by UNECE and the Council of Europe, along with UNFPA. That Conference was the corollary of a long-standing collaboration between UNECE and the Council of Europe in the field of population. I do hope that this collaboration will continue in the future, to the benefit of both our two organizations and our member States.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am aware that many of the issues that you will be discussing over these two days are difficult and sometimes controversial. However, I trust that you will debate them in a constructive manner, and that your deliberations will result in new insights into the causes and consequences of population trends and patterns in Europe, and offer invaluable advise to policy-makers as to how to best address the challenges that our region is facing.

I wish you all a most productive conference. Thank you.