22nd Feb 2024

As EU birth-rates plummet, nativist family politics ascend

  • Whether or not a far-right discourse on migration and nativism will succeed will be revealed by voters in June. But European women need to prepare to serve as the solution (Photo: Unsplash)
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At 1.5 children per woman, the EU cannot ensure a sufficient population replacement rate — which could lead to difficulties in financing the welfare models and the care of the ageing population. At least, not without immigration.

And ahead of the EU elections, many far-right candidates are offering the voters an alternative: Viktor Orbán-style family policies.

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"Without migration, we will starve," said EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said earlier in January, at a panel discussion in Greece on migration issues.

This statement caused great anger, especially among the rightwing politicians of Europe. And in France that quote is used on the radical-right Reconquête party's EU campaign posters, to cite just one example.

Many EU member states are shocked to see a strong decline in their fertility rates. French women, for example, are having fewer children than ever. Just 678,000 babies were born in the country last year, which is the lowest number since World War II.

According to Ined, France's National Institute of Demographic Studies, this is primarily due to women having fewer or no children at all. However, the population increased slightly, principally thanks to fewer deaths — and immigration. The 'replacement rate', at which a population is stable, is 2.1 and in the European Union's countries, the fertility is much lower, around 1.5.

In 2000 the world's fertility rate stood at 2.7 births per woman, today it is at 2.3 — and falling. But there are great differences between countries: sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has a fertility rate of 4.45.

Europe's lower rates have led to a decline in the working-age population — while the retirement-age group has increased. Thus, Europe desperately needs more people.

However, anti-immigration ideas have proven effective in attracting EU voters.

Europe's rightwing politicians find most inspiration in Hungary. Family policy is a core matter for prime minister Orbán. At the Budapest Demographic Summit in 2021, he said the family policy "must be based on the mother" and the entire country must become "family-friendly"

Orbán put this so-called family-friendliness in contrast to "the fast spread in the West of neo-Marxist, neo-Leftist, woke movements" which, according to him, seek to miseducate children and use them as "Pride activists", while while the nation's identity is eradicated by migration.

According to a European Commission report from last year, the trend of population de-growth will continue.

Meanwhile, opinion polls predict that far-right parties such as France's National Rally, led by Jordan Bardalla, Matteo Salvini's League in Italy and the Swedish Democrats in Sweden will perform well in the June elections.

And shortly after those elections, when the EU's legislative machine will be at low speed, Hungary will take over the EU Council presidency. According to what Hungary's then-justice minister, Judit Varga, said when she unveiled her country's presidency at the Hungarian parliament committee on European affairs, "the demographic challenges, family policy and the fight against illegal migration" are priorities.

The solution? The mother

While family law is the competence of the EU countries, not of the EU institutions, far-right parties are seeking to offer a solution to the demographic challenges without immigration, since they want to "protect the Western civilisation".

And, as Orbán puts it, the solution lies in "the mother". That is, European women.

When far-right Swedish Democrats' MEP Charlie Weimers, who is a candidate in the 2024 elections, posed with fellow Swede, and EU commissioner, Johansson, he made sure to point out that they "stand far from each other". In Sweden, the rightwing government depends largely on the Swedish Democrats — a party that holds "conservative family values" high, opposes "Pride propaganda" and, of course, immigration.

Even thought some radical right parties, like Spain's Vox, have seen a setback, and the Poles voted to oust the populist and "family-friendly" Law and Justice party, rightwing parties flirting with far-right ideas is a trend.

Governments supported by the far-right, like in Sweden, or directly governed by them, as in Italy with Georgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy leading the way, have now been joined by countries like Finland, Greece and the Netherlands — where Geert Wilders anti-migration and anti-Islam Party for Freedom became the largest party in the house of representatives.

As immigration is one of the main issues for European voters, and the far-right's anti-migration discourse has proven to be an election winner, the nativist question has risen to become a core issue also for liberals and the Left.

French MEP candidate for radical right party Reconquête, Marion Maréchal, is using the falling birth rates in her campaigning by establishing the slogan "Plus de Français en berceaux, moins de migrants en bateaux!" [The more French in the cradles, the less migrants in the boats]. Her party Reconquête is even more radical than her aunt Marine Le Pen's National Rally, but this stance unites them. But not only them.

When president Emmanuel Macron held a major live press conference last week he expressed that his biggest worry was the "threat of the far-right". His strategy is to address their exact issues: more French babies and fewer immigrants.

Macron promised to "continue the fight against illegal immigration and crack down on drug gangs and then he added more "natalist" policies — such as a more generous system of parental leave.

Whether or not a far-right discourse on migration and nativism will succeed will be revealed by voters in June. But European women need to prepare to serve as the solution.

Author bio

Emma Sofia Dedorson is a Paris-based journalist covering politics, culture and society in France, Spain and Italy.


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