Saturday

25th Mar 2017

Opinion

Europe is the old continent - and getting older

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent comments about 'old Europe' caused a few hands - especially French ones - to be thrown up in horror.

Mr Rumsfeld's words were meant geopolitically. His point was that the centre of European gravity is moving eastwards away from the Franco-German axis. His provocation caused many objections to be raised.

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But in one respect, Rumsfeld was certainly right. Demographically speaking, Europe is 'old' - and getting older.

UK has more over-60s than under-16s for the first time

The UK, for example, which likes to characterise itself as the bridge between the US and Europe, is increasingly a nation of pensioners. The 2001 UK census revealed that the country has more over-60s than under-16s for the first time.

The pattern is repeated across most of Europe - especially in the biggest economies - and by 2020 will be even more pronounced, with a decrease of around 10% in the number of people aged 24 or under, but an increase of as much as 30% in the 65+ age band.

Contrast this with the US, which has a third more under-16s than over-60s.

EU a landscape of golf courses and convalescent homes

As the EU becomes a landscape of golf courses and convalescent homes, is it surprising that it starts to exhibit the views and habits of a pensioner? Anything new is treated with suspicion. Immigration, which in other countries and other times has been a positive influence, generates reactions of fear and paranoia.

The EU institutions in Brussels constantly bemoan the lack of entrepreneurial ideas and slow adoption of information society technologies. In these areas, the EU is well behind the US and Japan in most of the main indicators.

But is it really a surprise, when most EU citizens are more concerned with the fortunes of their pension fund and finding a really comfortable pair of slippers?

Tony Blair - keen to be perceived as tuned-in and trendy

In foreign affairs, the EU represents the caution of old age, whilst the US represents the arrogance of youth. The juxtaposition is perfectly illustrated by the Iraq crisis. The US wants to sort it out - no doubt making many mistakes and inflicting much collateral damage along the way - but Europe dithers.

In the middle is a somewhat schizophrenic Tony Blair, who despite the fact he's not so young himself is keen to be perceived as tuned-in and trendy and is often seen in jeans hanging around with rock stars.

Enlargement will accelerate trend of againg population

One hope on the horizon is that the arrival of ten new Member States will provide the EU with a powerful shot in the arm. But population statistics in those countries are in many cases even starker than in the EU.

The total fertility rate (children per woman of child-bearing age) in the EU in 2001 was 1.47 - below 'replenishment' level. But in Poland it was 1.29, Slovakia 1.21 and in the Czech Republic only 1.14. By taking in the new Member States, the EU will actually be accelerating the trend of an aging population.

The generation gap in most of the candidate countries is far more marked than in the west. A fairly clear division can be perceived between those born pre- and post- 1970. Those born before are still marked by the Communist mind-set. Some even miss the old days.

The younger generation has a different view altogether. On a visit to Prague last year, I was told by Petr Greger, Director of the pro-EU Euro-Czech Forum, that, "In the Czech Republic the majority of the problems and the solutions are in the generation problem."

Candidate countries can offer a new energy to the EU

It is in this generation gap, not in a talking shop headed by a septuagenarian ex-French President, that the real dynamic for the future of Europe will be found. The under-30s in the candidate countries are westward looking, highly educated - often speaking good English - and keen to take advantage of the opportunities the EU offers them.

Compared to their counterparts in the existing EU Member States they are less cynical. Moreover they need to prove themselves - not only to their new peers in the EU15, but also to their parents, whose communist hangover values in many cases they have rejected. This is in sharp contrast to the jaded youth of the west, who are by and large used to a comfortable life.

The younger generation in the candidate countries can offer a new energy to the EU. The results of this will be seen in Brussels over the next ten to twenty years, as this generation takes senior positions in the institutions and begins to exercise its influence.

The irony of this of course is that Rumsfeld's 'old Europe' jibe will be borne out. Although the Brussels centre of the EU will remain very close to the heart of 'old Europe', the mental shift of the next two decades will be very much eastwards.

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STEPHEN GARDNER is a Brussels-based freelance journalist, researcher and public affairs consultant. He owns the website euro-correspondent.com

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