Well, there’s one country that has taken this idea to heart. Hungary’s controversial government under Prime Minister Victor Orban has made it a priority to support couples who want to have children. And the woman in charge of putting that policy into effect, the families minister, Katalin Novak, was in London this week. She was talking about her government’s success in raising the birth rate in Hungary to an average of 1.56 children, still below the European average, but a dramatic improvement over the trajectory of the last 40 years. Even more impressively, the marriage rate has doubled in the last ten years – the biggest increase in the EU.
Mrs Novak hopes that if the present policies are persevered with – the country will hold a general election next year – Hungary will reach replacement rate in twenty years’ time. But at present no EU country is replacing two parents with two children, though in neighbouring Turkey the birth rate is more than that. (The Turkish president is very pro-natalist.)
“A society”, Pope Francis said said, “that does not welcome life, stops living.”
What strikes her is how few people are asking why this is the case. “I think Europe is facing serious challenges right now”, she said, “including demographically. Europe is going down in terms of numbers. We don’t talk about that. We don’t raise the question that should be raised.”
So, what does she think the answer is to Europe’s dearth of children?
“I’ve been working in this field for almost eight years now”, she said, “and I have experience in this area. I see it’s not very high up the agenda in the EU. I see we avoid even mentioning this question of why women don’t want children. Why is it? Why is there a fertility gap, where couples want children, but don’t have them? And I always ask my international partners what is the reason why they think this is the case, and they say we don’t intervene into anyone’s personal life. But we in Hungary don’t intervene in anyone’s personal life. We don’t persuade, we don’t convince, we just enable. I think we should talk about this and share insights.”
And Hungary does go out of its way to enable couples to have children. The government has introduced a raft of pro-natalist measures which are among the most generous in Europe. Most recently, it has guaranteed that a woman who has a baby will receive by way of benefits the same income for six months as from her salary before she gave birth, but with no income tax – so a new mother will be better off than before. There are housing benefits. There’s a popular interest free loan of 30,000 euros for those intending to have a child, which need not be repaid if you have three children. Mothers with four children will never have to pay income tax, no matter how high their salary. There is generous childcare provision and benefits in schools. The cost of all this amounts to five per cent of Hungary’s GDP – way above the OECD average of 2.6 per cent – and is to rise to 6.2 per cent of GDP next year if the Orban government is re-elected.
So, the Hungarian government knows where it stands. She is perplexed that other European governments do not even ask what the demographic problems are.
“What is the answer?”, she asks. “I don’t know. Maybe the answers are different [in different countries]. I think there are some common points. If the reasons for the reluctance to have children are mainly financial, we can help; but if these are more cultural issues, for example this green agenda where they talk about not having children for the sake of the environment, we could address it differently. But in general, if you are to solve the problem you have to understand what the problem is about. And we give the wrong answers in Europe to a question that is never raised. We offer migration as an answer, but what is the question to which that is the answer?”
“If we are to speak about protection of the environment, which is a very important topic”, she says, “the best thing you can do is to have children and teach them how to preserve the planet.” – Katalin Novak
She is troubled that environmentalists respond to the issue of climate change, by discouraging procreation. “If we are to speak about protection of the environment, which is a very important topic”, she says, “the best thing you can do is to have children and teach them how to preserve the planet. If you say, we should not have children to preserve the planet, who do we preserve it for? For itself? That’s only understandable if you think in future generations.”
She is right. And she is, at least, asking the troubling fundamental questions that our politicians do not raise – though her programme in London included a meeting with Jacob Reese Mogg, who has done his bit for the birth rate. The refusal to have children for altruistic environmental reasons is anti-human. It would be good if our political classes could be similarly frank. Europe is shrinking, as she says, and we’re not even asking why. Apart, that is, from the Pope. He’s identified what he sees as the problem; shouldn’t others do the same?
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