Many countries in Europe have entered, or will shortly enter, what is known as a ‘demographic winter’ – a situation where the fertility rate falls to 1.3 births or lower [the replacement level is 2.1, – i.e every woman should have on average 2.1 children to maintain a stable population]. Demographers accept that once a civilization/culture has entered a ‘demographic winter’ the culture is doomed. Unquestionably, over the next couple of generations cultures will cease to exist, languages will die off – and the freedoms and a ‘way of life’ built up by sixteen hundred years of Christian influence will become a nostalgic memory. To put it in perspective – a birth-rate of 1.3 means that a country will lose 50% of its population every forty-five years.

What were once great Catholic countries of Europe teeming with life and hope are today barren, old and joyless. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland have catastrophic birth-rates -Ireland and France, were it not for a high birth-rates by foreign nationals, would be in the same boat. It is the same too in protestant countries and former communist societies –Russia, UK, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Romania all are in terminal decline. There are more abortions each year in Russia than live births. Angela Merkel acknowledges that Germany will be Muslim in 22 years.

2015 was a water-shed moment in European history because for the first time ever there were more deaths than live births in the European Union. The current population of the Europe Union is 508 million. In 2035, seventeen years from now, this figure will be 521 million, but from then on population figures will freefall reaching 506 million by 2060. While long term forecasts are unpredictable in demographics, if present trends continue – and demographers are at a loss to know how to alter fertility figures upwards – both the short term and long-term fertility forecast for Europe is very bleak indeed.

Not only is this catastrophic in the long term but already many nations are experiencing the effects of rapid fertility decline – an aging population puts enormous strains on social welfare systems. The EU index of retirees versus working-age people will increase from the current 25 percent to 53 percent by the year 2060. That is, for every retiree above the age of 65, there will be only two people working and paying taxes. This index could reach as high as 60 percent in some states of the EU, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. All of this raises the spectre of euthanasia as an easy way of dealing with this problem.

Despite huge enticements to women to have more children in different European countries the graph continues to head south. In 2016 Italy’s Health Minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, proposed doubling the country’s “baby bonus” to try and halt or slow the shrinking of the country’s population. As Ms Lorenzin notes, if the current trajectory continues, Italy will have fewer than 350,000 births a year in 10 years’ time, 40 percent fewer than there were in 2010. This, she warned, would be an “apocalypse”. ‘In five years we have lost more than 66,000 births [per year] – that is the equivalent of a city the size of Siena ceasing to exist,’ [she] said. ‘If we link this to the increasing number of old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.’”

Whether or not an additional financial incentive from the government will do much to persuade more Italians to have babies is debatable. No country has ever been able to turn around fertility once it has entered the stage known as the ‘Demographic Winter’.

Written by Fr. Tomás Walsh