Viktor Orbán is not the first in Europe to focus on demography as one of the most important issues at the moment. However, he is the most persistent and seems to be the most interested in this matter. He organized a demographic summit in Budapest for the fourth time in a row. Gathering numerous individuals from politics and academia, thus expanding the “intellectual circle”, the summit consequently involved a larger number of topics for discussion.
The demographic ebb, evident in almost all European countries, is no longer analyzed only through the immediate measures that state authorities can take in order to stop adverse trends, but also from an ideological point of view; and increasingly so.
Hungary has come a long way in defining measures to encourage parenthood. For quite some time now, this has no longer been based on what is essentially the simplest model–the payment of child allowances–but rather on the introduction of a special institution which Russia calls “maternal capital”. It implies guarantees for housing loans (currently amounting to around 35,000 euros, and non-refundable for a family with a third child), exemptions from income tax, a progressive reduction of payments of various duties, and so forth.
The point is not only in providing financial benefits. Rather, there is also an economic and social dimension to the issue. Firstly, it has been documented that families with many children (regardless of whether they are families with two or more children) are a kind of initiator to microeconomic processes. In their place of residence, these families spend more money on compulsory and additional education of children, learning languages, sports activities, cultural events, health services, and finally on the expansion of housing, which requires bank loans, along with all other usual costs.
Simply put, through these subsidies, the money is “returned to the system” and it stimulates economic dynamics. It does not go to “luxury needs” and it “does not leave” the “local community”. Critics say this kind of assistance is a “drop in the ocean”; however, over time, many drops can form a river.
Secondly, this is how “inclusive policy” is best implemented. It is in the interest of parents to “go after every job” and to get involved in economic and social activities, and when they are guaranteed that their gross earnings are equal with the net salary, it is a very profitable option for them to work more. Subsidies then cease to be a “social category”. Thus, we can avoid fruitless discussions like “why would child allowances be paid from the budget”, or “why did those couples give birth to so many children in the first place if they cannot support them”.
Practical life shows us that adults who were raised in such families are prepared to make greater sacrifices, endure more for their families, and are aware of the need to work harder. Again, all that extra money is mostly spent on the needs of the local community, and is returned to the budget through taxes on the purchased products and services.
As far as the state treasury is concerned, these incentives are ultimately not a minus. But when we talk about what researchers mean when they say “human capital”, the pluses are multiple. A society cannot develop without children. We cannot even think optimistically about the future, or fill up the budget, ensure national security, improve science and education without children.
Although the demographic ebb is evident throughout Europe–after all, year after year, Germany is allocating more and more funds for “covering up the holes” in the pension system–countries in the east of the continent are in the worst position. The already poor indicators of the number of births and deaths, the causes of which are multiple, are coupled by the galloping migration of the young (and mostly educated) population to Western countries. This is also detected in poorer EU member states.
Germany thus “compensates for the deficit” by accepting people from Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia. To some extent, Poles are also managing by opening their borders for Ukrainians, while Hungarians are attracting compatriots from the area. But essentially, the question remains: how long can such an approach last?
The preliminary results of the population census from North Macedonia have shocked the public. And more shocks are yet to come as data is published elsewhere in the Balkans. The population decline in Southeast Europe between the two censuses is estimated in millions of people.
In their great book Empty Planet, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson warn that something similar will continue around the world in only three decades.
A change in the way of life, the adoption of different values and the inevitability of a new phase of demographic transition will take humanity towards the stage of “population bankruptcy”. There is logic in their conclusion. Just as there is logic in the fact that such a scenario will produce dramatic political and social changes. So dramatic that we can’t even imagine them at the moment.
The imposition of different values was also discussed at the Budapest summit. Former US Vice President Mike Pence emphasized:
“Our families have built our civilizations. They need to be renewed and preserved. Strong families make strong communities, and strong communities make strong nations.”
It should be borne in mind here that the the term ‘nation’, as used by American conservatives, actually implies cultures and civilizations. The definition of the family is changing, as is the attitude towards heritage, tradition and–what is especially noticeable–religion. The God-like man is replacing the man-like God. With such a change, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil.
As expected, because of such discussions, topics and messages, opponents characterized the summit as an “anti-civilization” event; a gathering of proponents of anti-immigrant policy, homophobes, and radicals of various beliefs. Everyone is trying to defend their positions. The story of demographic renewal and family values does not go hand in hand with “pride parades” and the concept of gender equality.
And it is at this very moment that completely new, possible, and crucial topics are appearing on the “agenda” of future debates about the “fate of Europe”. Who is for the “culture of life”, and why? And who is for the “culture of death” and, again, why? How are human rights and freedoms interpreted in this context? Is there a European civilization without a European tradition and Christian heritage?
The latest summit indicated, like none before, that the story is moving from the narrow framework of taking concrete institutional measures to a far wider field of ideology.
Dušan Proroković, PhD, is a research fellow at the Institute of International Politics and Economics in Serbia. He earned his MA in the Czech Republic (Faculty for International Relations and Public Affairs, Prague), and his PhD in Slovakia (Faculty for Political Science and International Relations, Banska Bistrica). He is the author of four books about geopolitics, a distinguished scholar in Serbia, and a regular contributor to several news papers.