Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Children of Europe

The population is aging. Women no longer have babies as they once did. Immigrants are persecuted. Unrest grows. The future is bleak.

The parrallels between Alfonso Cuarón's new film Children of Men and the very real situation in Europe are legion. It's a terrific tale, and when it arrives in late Dec., it will be worth the $8.50 admission price. That the movie represents that most rare of cinematic breeds -- the English language film that premiers in Europe first, the United States second -- I think makes a lot of sense. In its almost literal "... and the Last Man" quality, it's much more an eerie reflection on European life today than a dystopian depiction of "The Future" at large.

Without a doubt the most pressing issue in Spain today -- and I would venture to say Europe in general -- is immigration. Because immigration to Spain is both an extremely new phenomenon (Spain was a net exporter of people until the late '80s), and an extremely sizable one (likely over 1 million for this year, making it for the 7th year in a row Europe's largest absorber of migrants), the impact here is particularly strong. Immigrants now make up 8.7% of the population, four times what they composed six years ago. It's what everyone wants to talk about, and it's above the fold each morning in the newspapers (except when those terrorist Basque bastards cause trouble). More empirically, polls show that immigration is now rated as the top political issue (over terrorism) by some three-fifths of voters, compared with only 29% a year ago.

Any intelligent Spaniard, however, will tell you exactly what any intelligent American will tell you about immigration: that at the end of the day, "we need it!" The Spanish government at least thinks so. Last year, 700,000 undocumented immigrants were given amnesty. The economic results of immigration seem to be quite clear: the social-security coffers remain stocked, and GDP growth is humming along at a respectable 3.7%, thanks in large part to increases in migrant-infused demand, and low labor costs.

There are two problems, however. The first, is that not everyone in Spain and Europe frolics into the night praising the economic benefits of immigration; and the second, is that this round of European immigration might be just beginning, not ending. The reason for the latter being that the Children of Men are drying up. Birth-rates all across Europe are continuing at an even more unsustainable pace, in the literal sense that Europe is not reproducing enough to reproduce itself. As a recent International Herald Tribune article put it:
"In 1990, no European country had a fertility rate less than 1.3; by 2002, there were 15, with six more below 1.4. No European country is maintaining its population through births, and only France - with a rate of 1.8 - has the potential to do so..." Of the 20 countries in the world with the highest share of geriatrics (those over 60), all but one were in Europe (the exception being Japan, eternal ruiner of all neat and clean statistics). "Collectively we decided not to have children and, without knowing it, we decided to immigrants,” one Spanish commentator was recently quoted as saying, certainly echoing what most of Europe feels to be the case.

Count me among the many who fear many European countries' ability to successfully integrate these new immigrants. Whereas the previous influx of non-European immigrants during the economic boom of the late 50s and 60s ended abruptly with stagflation and strict immigration laws -- leaving the children on these immigrants to fend for themselves in the suburbs of places like Amsterdam -- the historical circumstances this time around are different. Politicians know that so long as fertility rates remain low, the economic incentives of immigration are manifold, and the doors should best be left open. Whether they can balance this with the threat of an ultra nationalist and xenophobic backlash on behalf of some European political leaders and populaces -- as in Israel, where Mr. Lieberman's paty is doing its best to prove people like Mr. Judt right about what happens when states have to choose between democracy and ethnic purity -- remains I think the biggest concern. I focus on politicians more than multitudes because I think this journey between the Scylla of no Children of Men, and the Charybdis of high levels of immigration can be successfully navigated with intelligent and moral political leadership. From what it seems, I think the Spanish Socialists are one such example.


Blogger Scantron said...

I find the subject of declining birthrates fascinating, just because it so rudely reminds us of nature and necessity in a world dominated by the idea of choice. Like most other activities in our relatively luxuriant lives, sex has become largely a matter of use and enjoyment, even pathology, as opposed to a brute physical necessity or a religious injunction ("be fruitful and multiply"). We would like to think that all our activities can fall within the purview of choice, but then we see our birth rates falling and the "others" of the world multiplying like mad. This has several bad effects, which seem to have a strong historical precedent, even in America--we come to think of ourselves as civilized and responsible, and of them as brutish and sex-crazy. (The history of upper-middle class attitudes towards immigrants in America is key here.)

The funny thing is that America is still going strong, although I can't say for what reasons (one might tentatively suggest more religion, and with it less acceptance of contraceptive methods, less education, etc., but also we can't exclude greater affordability and opportunity.) The paradox is that when people talk about declining European birthrates (and I'm especially thinking of conservative commentators), we're supposed to get the image of a decadent, obsolescent Europe, too "weak" to support itself and fatigued by its own epicurean leftism, when in fact, as Robot's Herald Tribune article shows, it's primarily capitalistic forces that have spurred this trend. Birth rates were much higher in the Soviet Bloc under communism because of free daycare, benefits, etc. The article seems to lean a bit heavily on this interpretation so I wonder if there aren't additional factors, but the Commie explanation makes a certain amount of sense. Thus it is actually because of choice-based models (the free market, birth control) that birth rates decline. Fewer children also suggests a certain level of rational planning, plus an increase in independence and so less need for familial support.

8:58 PM  

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