…As the continent grapples with an ageing population, new centres of power have emerged
By Gerard Araud
WE Europeans are still convinced of the centrality of our small continent not only to the history of mankind but to shaping the world today. We lecture everyone else based on values that we firmly believe are universal. We think of ourselves as noble, powerful and well intentioned.
But the period of true European power was really just a historical blip.
Yes, Europeans dominated the world between 1815 and 1945, and from then until today we have stood just behind the US. But that was only two centuries: a comma in the history of the world. Until 1650, the GDP of India and, until 1750, the GDP of China were probably larger than any country in Europe.
So, in New Delhi and Beijing, we were seen as the upstarts during our period of dominance, and the economic rebalancing underway over the past few decades between Europe and Asia is viewed as merely a return to the long-term historical norm. The upstarts are being put back in their place.
It is no surprise that, in 2016, Barack Obama in an interview with The Atlantic seemed to believe that the future of humankind would be decided between New Delhi, Beijing and Los Angeles.
Indeed, when I served as France’s ambassador to Washington, I noticed the extent to which our supposed heirs viewed us instead with a mixture of indifference, fatigue and neglect. We were the old aunt whose rambling utterances were more or less gently ignored.
For the US, the potential growth but also the main challenges are in Asia, so it is only logical for Washington to pivot towards that continent. There can be no confusion on this. For the US, Russia is a regional power, a pain but not the centre of their attention. They want to put an end to the war in Ukraine as soon as possible to face the real threat: China.
Are we Europeans able to prove that we still matter, that we are not just some peripheral touristic destination?
I doubt it, and for a very particular reason. As a Frenchman who has seen his country, the China of Europe in 1815, progressively lose its power in parallel with its demographic decline, I firmly believe that demography is destiny.
On this basis, Europe is facing an unprecedented situation. Its total population is projected to fall by 5pc between 2010 and 2050, but by 17pc among 25 to 64 year-olds. The populations of Hungary, the Baltic States, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Italy and Greece are already declining, while Germany’s is plateauing before a predictable decrease. The median age of Europeans is 42 years compared with 38 in the US. It is increasing on average by 0.2 years per annum.
What does it mean? Less demand and therefore less growth; and less dynamic societies. In more concrete terms, it entails a threat to the ‘’European model’’, which is based on an uneasy compromise between a welfare state and economic reality.
Ageing voters privilege the former at the expense of the latter. That will only become more of a problem in the decades ahead, given that the number of Europeans aged over 80 will more than double.
Old age means ever-growing spending on health and personal assistance. The demographic crisis will, in turn, tear apart our societies between the working-aged and the retired in a context in which the latter enjoy a standard of living the former often can’t ever hope to reach.
More acutely, Europeans will fight over the question of immigration. The experts are very clear in their assessment: given the weak effectiveness of “natalist” policies designed to increase birth rates, there is no alternative to overcoming demographic decline in Europe other than immigration.
In today’s Europe, it is a euphemism to say that this solution won’t be generally welcomed. When a French minister recently hinted that we may have to accept a limited number of immigrants to deal with shortages of personnel in some sectors, there was such an outcry that he immediately backpedaled.
The UK left the EU largely to stop immigration even from European countries. In 2015, Germany might have opened its borders to more than one million immigrants from the Middle East, but this was in response to a humanitarian emergency.
It is hard to imagine it being repeated for purely economic reasons. Indeed, such a well-needed influx of workers in a rapidly-ageing country would surely be impossible to renew given the rise of the far-Right party, the AfD.
In this context, emigration from Europe is especially unwelcome. We are losing young, highly educated individuals who go mainly to the US, where they will have better opportunities, be it in the research, academic or the private sectors.
When travelling in America, everywhere I went I met European researchers, surgeons, teachers and entrepreneurs. It was difficult not to feel sadness that these young people, who our countries had educated at a high cost, were instead enriching the US.
But their explanation was always the same: better financing, more opportunities, less regulation. Unfortunately, ageing countries have less money and tend to love regulations.
Don’t say my pessimism is only the usual French moaning; don’t add that British and French demographics are not that bad (although that is true).
Every signal is pointing towards an inward-looking Europe. Un continent de vieux. The future of humankind will be definitely decided elsewhere.
*Gerard Araud is a former French ambassador to the United States