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Procedure : 2005/2147(INI)
Document stages in plenary
Document selected : A6-0041/2006

Texts tabled :

A6-0041/2006

Debates :

PV 23/03/2006 - 5
CRE 23/03/2006 - 5

Votes :

PV 23/03/2006 - 11.14
CRE 23/03/2006 - 11.14
Explanations of votes

Texts adopted :

P6_TA(2006)0115

Debates
Thursday, 23 March 2006 - Brussels OJ edition

5. Demographic challenges and solidarity between the generations (debate)
PV
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  President. The next item is the report (A6-0041/2006) by Mr Bushill-Matthews on behalf of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs on demographic challenges and solidarity between the generations (2005/2147(INI)).

 
  
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  Philip Bushill-Matthews (PPE-DE), rapporteur. Madam President, I welcome the priority given to this issue by the Commissioner. This priority is recognised and supported by all political groups in Parliament. The fact that there were over 200 amendments at the committee stage for what was and is an own-initiative report, is hopefully seen as a reflection of their priority and not entirely down to the inadequacy of the rapporteur in the first place.

I wish to begin by thanking colleagues in the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, especially the shadow rapporteurs for their important input. I should like to thank the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and in particular the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – with whom we had enhanced cooperation, both officially and in practice – for their valuable opinions and for the many ideas they have also contributed to this report.

However, one direct consequence of all this is that the report is too long: a tribute perhaps to our collective enthusiasm. I hope, with the support of colleagues in the vote today, that we can make it a little shorter.

However, the thrust of the report should remain clear: the challenges of an ageing population, with more people living much longer, with more older people who are inactive and need the support of others, and more older people who are active and need to support themselves, are not just problems for the elderly, but for society as a whole. The challenges of a declining birth rate, with fewer people of working age, who are mathematically unable to fund the larger number of pensioners; with many parents who want to have more children grappling with the pressures of combining work and family life, but who are mathematically unable to make ends meet. These are not just problems for young people, these too are problems for society as a whole. They are challenges for governments; they are challenges for businesses. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but, as they say in the X-Files: the truth is out there!

There are many different ideas around and different experiences to draw upon, not just in the European Union. A number of thoughts and pointers are in this report. We now need minds to open, but, above all, we need action to follow these ideas through.

I hope the Commissioner feels that this report reflects not only his own priority but also his own personal sense of urgency, and that all will agree that the real work starts now.

 
  
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  Vladimír Špidla, Member of the Commission. (CS) Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank Mr Bushill-Matthews, the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality for their report, which is truly inspiring. I am delighted at the support that Parliament has expressed for our Green Paper. Parliament’s report has come at the right time to provide a boost to the work of the Commission in respect of the new communication on demographics, since we will be finalising this communication over the next few weeks, and the timing therefore allows us to make use of your report in a very practical way. The report includes a number of highly important points that merit a place in the new communication, which draws conclusions from the responses we received to our Green Paper and from impact studies financed through the pilot action which the European Parliament organised. It sets out the possibilities for continuing cooperation at a European level over demographic issues.

Ladies and gentlemen, in recent times Europe has achieved some extraordinary successes. I would like to state this unequivocally, so that we may bear it in mind. The demographic ageing of our society is an outcome of this success in respect of two of the corners of the population pyramid and two locations on the pyramid. Average life expectancy has increased through the enormous advances in medicine, which have, for example, largely overcome cardiovascular diseases, thereby making a significant contribution to average life expectancy for middle-aged persons. Thanks to major medical advances in the area of child care and peri-natal care, the figures for child and infant mortality have fallen to levels never before seen in history and probably unexpected up to even a few decades ago. This is an unquestionable success. In a manner of speaking, we now enjoy twice as much life as our forbears. And I was delighted to discover, during the course of discussions with the insurance companies, that they are now working from mortality tables that go up not to 80, but to 120 years.

This success has its consequences, of course, since demographic ageing alters our entire society across all areas. It is important to realise that a holistic response is required, an integrated and all-inclusive response. Demographic ageing goes beyond the issues of pension systems, health, education, urban planning and so on. In fact, I doubt whether we could find any area of human activity that is not affected by demographic ageing, including the armed forces. We must therefore strive to ensure that active ageing becomes a reality. We must develop our care services for children and the elderly. We must develop new products and services in order to respond better to the needs of ageing individuals, and of course the needs of a society that will be ageing overall, as its age profile alters. We must finally invest more in developing and retaining our human capital in such a way that we achieve high levels of employment and enable the elderly to remain active in the workforce for longer. In the responses to the Green Paper consultations, especially in the responses of the Member States, great emphasis was placed on the need for better harmonisation of our private, family and professional lives.

It is already the case that migrants are reversing patterns of demographic decline in some Member States. In order to have a truly beneficial effect, migration must go hand in hand with greater efforts at integration and overcoming differences. Despite all of this, ladies and gentlemen, it remains clear that the migrants on whom we are counting as a permanent feature of our societies in the future do not represent the answer to the problems of demographic ageing. They are one of the components, but they should never be regarded as the solution.

I would like to mention some of the issues that should be included in our programme of work over the coming years. We would like to renew our focus on harmonising family and professional life, as it is clear that European citizens want to have more children than they currently have. And in order for their natural longings and wishes to be fulfilled, we must in my view take a profound look at our society as a whole, our habits, our ways of doing things and the practices we employ. We would like to set up a European forum on population and demographics, enabling us to understand better the various aspects involved in incorporating a demographic dimension into individual policies, and supported by recognised experts in the field as well as voluntary organisations. In 2007 the Commission will be presenting a report on the measures taken by Member States to incorporate into their national legislation the provisions of Directive 2007/78/EC relating to age discrimination. Every two years, coinciding with the plenary sittings of the forum, the Commission will publish a report on population and demographics in Europe, which will describe demographic trends in Europe in the context of developments worldwide.

Ladies and gentlemen, the added value of Europe consists largely in organising the exchange of information, comparing proven approaches and presenting and disseminating the resulting data. We are already doing this in many areas, especially those areas relating to the Lisbon Strategy. Ladies and gentlemen, demographic developments are changing our society. They have changed it throughout history and will continue to do so in the future. Our society is becoming technically older in demographic terms, but we can also say with certainty that it is becoming wiser, as wisdom is related to experience and is in all societies a characteristic of those who have enjoyed good fortune, living long enough to have the opportunity to draw on their experiences. In our debates I feel that we shall find ways to respond to the challenges arising from the enormous success of our society in prolonging life and raising the quality of life, and we shall do it in such a way that future generations will follow the course that we plot, a course that will involve a more profound sense of the quality of life, the human dimension and the social values that we all cherish.

 
  
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  Thomas Ulmer (PPE-DE), draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. (DE) Madam President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I should like to start by giving my sincere thanks to Mr Bushill-Matthews for his excellent report. I would say to Commissioner Špidla that, personally, I would gladly live for 120 years. I need to reach 116 to break even on my pension scheme.

I am surprised that the Green Paper on demographic change does not take greater account of health aspects. The problems of an ageing society are not limited to economic aspects. New syndromes are coming to the fore, as can already be seen: dementia – be it Alzheimer’s disease or subcortical dementia – vascular disease, from coronary heart disease to renal insufficiency, metabolic diseases – diabetes, first and foremost – arthritis of the spine and the large joints, and osteoporosis, to name but a few. This makes it all the more a question of prevention, of ensuring good living conditions for all before treatment and, if treatment should be necessary, of ensuring that this is as good as possible for all Europeans. It is a case of maintaining both quality of life and mobility.

We need social reorientation in order to meet these challenges. Retirement now comprises one third of the human lifespan. We need meaningful employment, social tasks, fulfilling tasks for older people, barrier-free living, new forms of housing, and, if necessary, excellent nursing care and medical care.

However, I would take issue with the implicit and unreflective assumption in the Green Paper that a decline in population would have exclusively negative consequences for the established social system. I should therefore like to see the following issues addressed: the extent to which the negative consequences of a population decline may be addressed by innovation, higher rates of employment and modernisation of social protection; whether there may also be positive aspects to the decline in population, for example on issues relating to the environment, traffic congestion and land development; and whether a ‘Pareto optimum’ for Europe’s population size may ultimately be established.

 
  
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  Edite Estrela (PSE), draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.(PT) I should like to congratulate Mr Bushill-Matthews on his excellent report and on the cooperation that we established in the process of drafting our respective reports.

In 2003, the natural growth of Europe’s population was 0.04%. Between 2005 and 2030 it is forecast that some 20 million people will be lost. By 2025, the population of the EU is expected to grow slightly, due to immigration, but then to fall again. Immigration is only a partial solution. Europeans do not have the number of children they want. Studies show that they would like to have 2.3 children on average, but they only have 1.5. This figure is too low for the population to be reinstated.

Among the reasons for the low birth rate are: belated or unstable access to employment; difficulty of access to housing; the late age at which parents are having their first child; a lack of tax incentives and family benefits; inadequate parental leave; lack of day-care facilities for children and other dependent persons; the salary gap between men and women; and the difficulty of reconciling family and working life.

According to demographics expert Phillip Longman, in Europe it is conservative Christians and Muslims who are having more children, and this will lead to changes in the make-up of society. What can be done to redress the situation? Phillip Longman makes some suggestions: Sweden has succeeded in increasing its birth rates by raising social benefits and by building day-care centres and crèches. In Italy, it would be helpful if securing a loan to buy one’s own house were made easier, as it is currently very difficult to do so. One thing is certain: in most Member States there is a strong correlation between high rates of female employment and high birth rates, and vice versa.

 
  
  

IN THE CHAIR: MR SARYUSZ-WOLSKI
Vice-President

 
  
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  Struan Stevenson, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. Mr President, in the words of Commissioner Špidla, demographic change is not only a topical issue, but also one of the biggest challenges facing Europe today. That is why the report from Philip Bushill-Matthews is both timely and highly relevant.

The problem with politicians nowadays is that we only think in five-year time frames. It is not seen as politically expedient to deal with matters that will have a dramatic impact on our lives ten or twenty years down the line. Indeed, in the past few months I have been chairing a PPE-DE working group dealing with specific aspects of demographic change. We have come up with some fairly useful conclusions on the issue.

First of all, in the field of demography and the family, Europe should not resign itself to a decline in its population. Improving the overall situation for children and for young people and enhancing the compatibility of work and family life for men and women, combined with tax incentives, could have a significant impact on birth rates.

Secondly, it is clear that more choice and flexibility in the labour market is needed in Europe. In this respect we should enhance the participation in the workforce of women, young people and older people, by providing new opportunities through, for instance, flexibility of working hours, the promotion of part-time jobs and autonomous work. The education systems need to be reformed in order to increase the efficiency and pace of higher education, thus enabling an earlier entry into working life.

Thirdly, skilled workers from third countries should be attracted, but according to our working group, we should not consider immigration as a single solution to Europe’s future demographic and labour market problems. Immigrants have to possess talents and skills that Europe is short of and must be prepared to integrate themselves into our societies and accept our common values.

In order to be able to face the challenge of demographic change and sustain an ever-changing society, we need to ensure the determined implementation of the Lisbon Agenda. The status quo is not an option. To develop and thrive, Europe needs – to use one of Mr Barroso’s buzz words – ‘flexicurity’ and innovation. Security and flexibility of the labour market will enable us to respond to the challenges of globalisation. To achieve this we need to reform our pension systems and concentrate on growth and jobs by introducing innovative measures to support the birth rate and by a judicious use of immigration.

Only through innovation, through re-inventing ourselves, can we be sure that the challenge of demographic change will become tomorrow’s opportunity for growth.

 
  
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  Joel Hasse Ferreira, on behalf of the PSE Group. – (PT) There is no doubt about the importance of the issue before us. A large proportion of Europe is getting older. With rare exceptions, birth rates are low. Various social protection, solidarity and social security mechanisms have seen their sustainability come under threat. Immigration from countries outside Europe has apparently made it possible to balance activity rates in some Member States, but there are social consequences in terms of social integration and family support that must be taken into account.

The debate on demographic challenges has gained fresh urgency, with the advent of the recent Scandinavian implementation of the European Social model. It is very important to combine increased productivity and competitiveness benefits with strong female participation in the labour market. At the same time, birth rates have gone up and there is now more understanding when it comes to paternity leave and greater support for motherhood.

Accordingly, from a European perspective, all efforts must be channelled into reconciling working life and family life in each Member State, by negotiating more flexible working hours, and by means of more appropriate and more widespread child support infrastructure. In addition, mutual knowledge of different social security systems must be increased and people must be given the opportunity to move freely from one national system to another, be it public, private or any other kind, for example, mutual benefit systems. This is very important for workers who pay social security in a particular Member State, whose lives will improve on their return to their country of origin and when they move to another Member State to work.

There also needs to be a drive to modernise social protection systems. Moreover, active ageing should be encouraged. This is all discussed in the reports by Mr Bushill-Matthews, Mrs Estrela and all the members of committees working with such dedication in this area. I should like to conclude by saying that the demographic challenges currently facing Europe are serious, but that there are ways of addressing these challenges. Let us therefore rise to the challenge of helping to ensure greater solidarity between the generations.

 
  
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  Marian Harkin, on behalf of the ALDE Group. Mr President, I would like to congratulate the rapporteur on his very comprehensive report on this issue of major importance throughout the EU-25, namely the challenge of demographic change and the importance of solidarity between the generations. In essence, what the report proposes is improved quality of life for all, at all stages of life, and a recognition that policy decisions and legislation enacted should contribute to that core objective. Because of time constraints I will briefly make just two points.

I am happy to see included in this report a recommendation to Member States to improve the provision of services of general interest in rural areas, thereby promoting an equitable balance between rural and urban living, in particular for older people.

I am also asking for support on Amendment 20, which seeks to recognise the potential of assisted-living housing. I use as a template for this the St Brendan’s Village project in County Mayo in the west of Ireland, and the SLE Habitat Extra Care scheme in Lille in France.

In a report produced by the European Liaison Committee for Social Housing to mark the United Nations Year of Older Persons, one of the main recommendations is that governments and service providers should help people to stay in their own communities as they get older. According to the report, the two projects I have just named provide good examples of projects built to meet local needs. They help keep older people in the communities where they have spent most of their lives, with the support of family, friends and services, and in familiar surroundings. That is surely solidarity between the generations.

All of us in this House – if we are lucky enough to live long enough – will grow old. For some of us, that is closer than for others. However, personally, I would prefer to live independently in my community with the level of social and medical assistance that I need. The two projects I referred to are European models of best practice in this area and could be replicated throughout the EU-25.

 
  
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  Sepp Kusstatscher, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. – (DE) Mr President, alongside climate change, demographic change is probably the greatest challenge of the present day. There are very many reasons why our birth rate is falling, with a consequent decline in future prospects for our society.

I should like to select just one aspect of this extremely complex issue: pension provision for mothers. The work done by mothers, especially those with several children, receives far too little recognition. One of the main problems is that most mothers from the days when mothers could not have or did not want careers because of bringing up and caring for their children are at a clear disadvantage, first in their careers and subsequently in old age.

In our affluent society, bringing up and caring for children should be given at least the same recognition as activities in the production and services sectors and should thus count fully towards pension entitlement. The simplest, most comprehensive solution would be an unconditional basic income for all.

 
  
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  Ilda Figueiredo, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group. – (PT) The demographic changes taking place in the EU, are, on the whole, beneficial rather than detrimental to society. Because of improved living standards and healthcare, life expectancy has increased. This of course creates fresh challenges, which must be addressed.

Among these challenges, which the Commission has not properly addressed in the Green Paper, are the importance of sexual and reproductive health, gender mainstreaming in all studies and policies, improving people’s living standards and greater economic and social inclusion and cohesion.

Consequently, in the proposals tabled by our group, the accent is placed on the need for job stability, safety in the workplace and reduced working hours, in order to ensure that younger and older workers alike can gain access to suitably paid work. This will enable workers to have more time to devote to the family, to support their children and to pursue their own lifelong learning.

The main priorities as regards managing demographic change are jobs with rights, fairer income distribution, strong public social security based on solidarity between generations, and high-quality public services, in particular in areas such as health, education, housing and social protection. In other words, what we are proposing is to reverse the current trend of prioritising competition and liberalism, increasingly precarious and poorly paid work, unemployment, privatisation of public services and the trampling of labour rights. We therefore stress the need for a sea change in these policies.

 
  
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  Kathy Sinnott, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. Mr President, in 1981 in Ireland I heard a lecture by Dr Herbert Ratner, a professor of public health and medical ethics. In it he described the demography of continental western Europe. He accurately predicted the pattern we now see of birth-rate freefall by the year 2000 and the terminal decline of population by 2020, which is now inevitable.

In this lecture Dr Ratner warned his Irish listeners to continue to choose life and, among the many benefits this brings, avoid the demographic suicide of our European neighbours. We chose life two years later in a referendum to protect the life of the human person from conception to natural death. Ireland’s birth rate is now falling, but we delayed the trend by 20 years and, although today we are just below replacement, we still have the healthiest birth rate, the youngest workforce and the strongest economy in the EU. As the Commission’s Green Paper on demography states, there is no economic growth without population growth.

I can think of many good reasons for the EU to embrace the culture of life, the dignity of the human person and God. But, if for no other reason than economic growth and a viable future for Europe, we should rethink our attitude to the sanctity of life, to the position of the family and to support for mothers and other carers.

 
  
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  Amalia Sartori (PPE-DE). – (IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I too should like to thank the rapporteur for this excellent work. For my part, the issues that I wish to highlight are the two major challenges facing us: firstly, an ageing population for whom we want to ensure the best possible, dignified old age and, secondly, a low birth rate. We want the right balance to be restored in our continent between the expectations of women and those of our countries.

In order to tackle the first challenge, two policies need to be followed. The first is to do away with any disincentive to extend a person’s working life, and therefore to endorse all policies designed to enable elderly people to remain directly involved in the job market for as long as possible. The second policy is to give the elderly the opportunity to remain within their communities for as long as possible. All social policies should be geared towards this objective: to remain in the family environment and in the surroundings of one’s own home, with residential care used only as a last resort.

As regards birth-rate policy, I believe that, as always in life, it helps to have concrete evidence. It must be pointed out that, over the last few years, it was those very countries that took an intelligent approach to drafting new tax policies that went on to obtain good results; one interesting example is France. New tax policies, extensive employment opportunities for women, the opportunity to enter the job market and undoubtedly a new and different quality of services are therefore needed.

 
  
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  Karin Jöns (PSE). – (DE) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt that demographic change represents one of the greatest challenges of the present day for all the Member States of the EU.

However, demographic change should also be seen as an opportunity to achieve a new solidarity across the generations, which guarantees young people a good education, creates jobs for all and enables people to grow old with dignity. A very important step towards this would be to introduce impact on demographic change into the mainstream of all policy fields at both national and European level. That should also hold true for the work of the Commission.

Furthermore, this is another field in which we should learn more from one another, and intensify the exchange of experiences not only among governments but also among the social partners. These make a vital contribution to the distinguishing feature of the European social model, namely social solidarity. That is why I welcome the call for Member States to enter into new partnerships with the social partners, and also the call for the social partners to be consulted without delay on the balance between family and working life.

 
  
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  Gabriele Zimmer (GUE/NGL). – (DE) Mr President, there can be no serious discussion on demographic change if people are regarded as economic factors rather than individuals; yet, in my opinion, both the Commission Green Paper and the present report by Mr Bushill-Matthews make that very error.

I also feel that the discussion should consider demographic change as a global issue. It is evident that neither the Millennium Development Goals nor the fight against world poverty feature even remotely in our debate on demographic change. After all, the main problem is not that the European population is declining, but that, firstly, this is disproportional from region to region; secondly, coexistence in society is at risk; and, thirdly, we are not relating demographic change in Europe to the exploding world population.

We are looking at the ageing of European society almost exclusively from the point of view of the dwindling workforce and, in the process, completely disregarding the development of productivity. At the same time, we are exploiting productivity as a means to cut social, sickness, health and pension benefits and to consider prolonging working life greatly. I am referring here only to the study prepared and published by the Commission, which envisages 71 years.

I call for a change in priorities. We need a child-friendly society, which actually welcomes living with children. We need a different kind of debate, as we cannot just see children as an investment to safeguard labour and pension provision. Furthermore, we cannot continue simply seeking a better reconciliation of working life and family life, of working time and leisure time. We need to concern ourselves with something more: with the children, for it is they who are important here. Children must really be central, and must be regarded as individuals.

Naturally, society also needs to meet the challenges of ageing, for example by means of expanding social services or, of course, by means of urban development: for example, old people’s housing, and transport designed with children and the elderly in mind. This issue is much more multifaceted than we think.

 
  
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  Ria Oomen-Ruijten (PPE-DE). – (NL) Mr President, you do not need to be an economist or political scientist to figure out that the trend to want to cash in on things and the disappearance of green in our society brings with it a large number of consequences.

Politicians such as ourselves know – but most of the public do not – that globalisation and demographic change cause a great number of problems. The Bushill-Matthews report tries to offer hope, and for that I offer him warm thanks. What we should do, though, is not just to look at what the Commission says. Whilst we must ensure that the birth rate goes up, it is not up to us politicians, but parents, to ensure children get born.

What politicians have to do is to create a child-friendly society, a society in which children are not a burden, but an additional benefit. That also means that we must ensure that people can look after children properly. That has implications for flexibility on the labour market, flexibility all through life and flexibility in working hours. That is where we politicians come in again.

If we want to create a good and fair society in which both young and old people can function, which is what we need, we must also ensure that legislation is child-friendly at European, but certain also national, level.

 
  
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  Marianne Mikko (PSE). (ET) Ladies and gentlemen, rapporteur. Mr Bushill-Matthews has prepared a much-needed report. If we continue to occupy ourselves merely with everyday politics, Europe will be hit by a demographic and social catastrophe on the scale of the Asian tsunami.

The sustainability of the European way of life is under threat. The younger generation works long days for a pittance, causing physical and mental weariness. What is presented as their free choice is actually forced upon them by the ‘winner takes all’ society. Wage slavery or unemployment, climbing the career ladder or having the door slammed in your face – these are the choices faced by our highly qualified young people.

When, in spite of the law, a person works 12 hours a day and more, neither flexible working hours nor longer opening hours in the sales and services sector can help. There is simply no time for private life or having children.

From the macroeconomic point of view, this arises from the need to finance the older generation’s anticipated pensions and medical treatment, which is becoming increasingly expensive. This report should just be a starting point. Maintaining the high standard of living in Europe requires politicians to do a lot of extra work, and to act quickly.

Thank you for your attention.

 
  
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  Marie Panayotopoulos-Cassiotou (PPE-DE). (EL) Mr President, the rapporteur, Mr Bushill-Matthews, who is known for his attention to detail and heightened sensitivity and who has patiently prepared this report, has quite rightly highlighted possible solutions to the demographic problem, starting with the means of decisively addressing low economic growth and high rates of unemployment.

A varied approach is advocated, depending on the circumstances, which – as is rightly emphasised – must respect freedom of choice and facilitate the exercise of the fundamental human right of European families to have as many children as they wish, without the obstacles raised by the difficulty of combining a professional and family life. Identifying these obstacles and those which exist both inside and outside the workplace (such as taxation, housing and the cost of education, health and insurance) is the responsibility of the Member States, given that the Member States alone shape both development and family policy.

Historically, of course, immigration has often resolved the problem of renewing the population and today it fills the gap created by our choice to have no children or just one child at an advanced age. What has brought us to these life choices in times of peace and opulence? Seeking the causes of demographic change is not the concern either of the European Commission or of the governments. It does not fall within the competences of the European Union; it falls within the competence of each European citizen who wants to go beyond his human capabilities, both in planning the beginning of life and in imposing its end.

Certainly education, training and finding work in an environment of sustainable development are necessary preconditions to a high standard of living. However, if there is to be no demographic problem, if new Europeans are to be born and grow old under dignified conditions, future parents need of their own accord to have a demand for reliability in their personal relations and, in general, a vision of life for the present and the future.

 
  
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  Aloyzas Sakalas (PSE).(LT) As a Member of the European Parliament elected in Lithuania, I find the demographic problem particularly relevant. Namely because the number of inhabitants in Lithuania is constantly declining, not so much as a result of emigration, but rather as a result of rapid birth rate reduction, which has already led to the closure of a number of schools. The steps taken by the Lithuanian Government to solve this problem are clearly insufficient and so the appearance of documents at European level is welcomed. But the birth rate reduction is not just a problem for Lithuania, but for the whole of Europe, and while statistically our families have less than 1.5 children each, in Asian countries, including the European Union candidate Turkey, children are born like mushrooms after the rain. What this could mean in the not too distant future is a theme worth contemplating. We can and must overcome this demographic crisis through real actions and programmes. These should make it worthwhile for every family to have at least three children. This is the precise spirit of the document presented, and once it is adopted, practical solutions should follow.

 
  
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  Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin (PPE-DE). – (FR) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I thank Mr Bushill-Matthews for his outstanding report.

In order to face up to the impact of demographic shock, it is usual to resort to three levers: a carefully chosen and regulated immigration policy, mobilisation of the workforce and policies aimed at families and at increasing the birth rate.

This latter kind of approach is usually left to the Member States. It would be wrong, nonetheless, for the European Union to deny itself these resources. Their effectiveness is well known, and the French example testifies to that: tax incentives for families, parental leave, financial assistance and, above all, the provision of child-care – out of school child care, a range of facilities for the care of very young children and care for children with disabilities. What is more, it is important to remember that it will not be possible to massively recruit women into the labour market without proper provision for the care of their children.

Europe does not lack the means, provided that it has the political will and the financial resources. It is therefore essential for the policy regulations for territorial cohesion to underline more strongly the need for funding for child care facilities. At a time when the debate is raging over the nature of the European social model, children and families, with all their diversity, must be fundamental to this model.

 
  
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  Vladimír Špidla, Member of the Commission. (CS) Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for a debate which has shown that demography is one of the most important issues facing Europe today, and which has shed light on the issue in many ways. I feel that we have had clear confirmation of the basic view that this is a matter of fundamental change, requiring a holistic or mainstream approach, as has been stated. At the same time, consideration has been given to various aspects of the wider problem. For example, it was stated that the Green Paper does not pay equal attention to two sets of problems, which is to say the problems in respect of the health sector and the problems in an international context. You may have noted from my report that the international context is to be covered in the regular reports, since from this standpoint a specific preliminary response already exists. The question of health is one of the most fundamental of all and I feel that the debate has inspired us to develop our thinking in this area further in the future.

This problem raises not only technical and organisational issues, but also a whole raft of ethical issues, since an ageing population will increasingly create situations where people are living in extreme circumstances through a combination of fate and their personal state of health. This means that an appropriate ethical response will be very difficult to find, requiring a great deal of profound reflection.

I think it was also clear that one issue on which attention was focused, in my view justifiably, was the question of children and the very low birth rate and how we might change or at least influence this. It also emerged clearly from the debate that that this was a general European question, since despite the fact that Ireland, for example, has at present the highest number of live childbirths per woman of childbearing age, it has also recorded a decline over the past 20 years sharper than just about any other country, and the current level is not sufficient to maintain demographic stability. There are, of course, other states which are in a far worse position and where the situation might become extremely difficult within a few generations.

It is also clear that we must give very serious consideration to the fact that not every society is people friendly. There is an old Roman saying ‘Inter arma silent Musae’, in other words when society is under any kind of stress or in an extreme situation, creativity suffers. In my view, having children is a matter of profound need and profound desire. Educating children and caring for them is also, in its way, an activity that requires very high levels of creativity, and it is clear that European citizens, if they are to decide in favour of having children, need greater security in a world that is undergoing enormous change.

The debate also touched on questions of gender balance, in my view justifiably. Allow me to mention one single item of information taken from a Spanish study: ‘in Spain men devote 52 million hours a year to taking care of dependent persons, that is to say children or elderly family members. Women devote 200 million hours a year to this type of care’. So the burden, which is a common one, falls very unequally, with women taking a fourfold share. I think that these too are questions that we must examine. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for the discussion and for a very concise report which shows that there is a striking tendency towards convergence in our approaches within the context of social and political thinking on Europe. In my opinion this gives hope for a coordinated position capable of overcoming the frequently troublesome changes following elections, as five years is a very short time for many issues.

 
  
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  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place today at 11 a.m.

Written statements (Rule 142)

 
  
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  Zita Gurmai (PSE). – Demographic challenges and solidarity between generations represent a complex issue having an extensive impact on our European societies. These two are comprehensive challenges which Member States have the responsibility to address in a long-lasting, future-oriented way.

The solution should be a comprehensive, global, consistent and fair strategy encouraging understanding and lasting solidarity between the growing number of generations living side by side.

Policy solutions to the demographic challenge, like ageing, gender, labour market, pensions, migration, should give rise to a new and coherent vision of a European society.

Although there are considerable differences in the local circumstances of Member States, the challenges and targets are similar – to tackle the increasing challenge of Europe’s ageing society, bearing in mind the Lisbon targets of making Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, with greater social cohesion and sustainable economic growth capacity, and more and better jobs.

Coping with demographic challenges must be a long-lasting solution which reaches even far beyond the Lisbon deadlines. To meet these goals, complex political, economic, and social strategies are needed.

 
  
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  Nils Lundgren (IND/DEM). – (SV) The Member States face significant demographic challenges. The problems and basic conditions differ, however, between one Member State and another. Both for this reason and for democratic reasons, solutions rooted in the individual nations are required. It makes no sense for the European Parliament to put forward detailed political recommendations expected to suit all the Member States.

The current report contains a long list of exhortations regarding the type of measures the Member States should take within important areas such as social insurances, taxes, working times and immigration. Which routes individual Member States choose within significant specialist areas of politics must be determined through national democratic processes and not imposed from above.

Political and social progress takes place through countries experimenting and trying different solutions that can be compared. Countries then learn from each other. It is through such processes that European culture has developed and, in practice, conquered the world. European solutions and ways of thinking have become successful precisely because they have come about through institutional competition between different countries rather than having been decided on centrally.

The report that is the subject of our debate constitutes a further example of the way in which, slowly but surely, the European Parliament tries to obtain ever more influence over national political issues. I regret this process and would criticise the European Parliament’s all but non-existent opposition to this undemocratic development.

 
  
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  David Martin (PSE). – It is clear that if Europe is to meet its demographic challenges it must address more effectively in the future than it does today the issue of work-life balance. If we are to attract parents of young children, the elderly or other groups who find standard ‘nine-to-five’ work impossible, we must achieve more flexible working hours, have better and more accessible childcare provisions, more family-friendly tax policies and greater equality in the workplace. However, it is clear even if we attract more of Europe’s existing residents into the workforce we will still face skill shortages. That is why we also need to have a balanced immigration policy.

 
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