Austerity is a Demographic Disaster for Europe

Those in Europe living under the current round of austerity measures are faced with deteriorating public services, regressive taxes, police repression, and unemployment. But austerity does not merely affect those who remain in their countries of citizenship—it drives people to emigrate, often permanently, and lowers birthrates. Across contemporary Europe, austerity is proving to be a demographic disaster, with consequences that could last a generation or more.

We have already seen the results of austerity in the small country of Latvia, a supposed success story. A country with an already low birthrate even by European standards (ranked 195th out of 222 countries in 2012 by the CIA World Factbook), the country lost 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010. Now, the population stands where it was in 1957 and estimates from the Ministry of Economics indicate that Latvia could have as few as 1.6 million people by 2030. Latvians joke that in 2030 the last Latvian can "shut off the lights at Riga airport"—but the first to leave the country have been those with higher degrees, a classic "brain drain" situation. Agencies in Latvia arrange for educated, middle-aged Latvians to emigrate to the UK or Ireland, where they will work on farms or in factories for low wages. The Latvian government claims that the demographic crisis is at the top of its agenda, but serious measures have yet to be implemented. Despite the continuing claims of success and growth from supporters of austerity, it is hard to imagine anything but a country in decline under these circumstances.

Across Europe, Portugal has a similar story. Reports now indicate that more than 2% of the population—240,000 people—has emigrated over the last two years. Some are settling in Switzerland or Germany, but many are now also heading to Angola and Mozambique. The irony of Portuguese fleeing their homeland for Portugal’s former colonies in Africa—a dramatic reversal of the population flow during decolonization in the 1970s—is one of many that austerity produces. Certainly, none should belittle Angola and Mozambique for their recent economic growth. But when Portugal’s Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho advocated last year for young Portuguese to look abroad for alternative job opportunities and "try Angola," this should be taken as nothing other than an admission of the failure of his government’s economic policies. Compounding this problem, Portugal now has a record-low birthrate, which will only likely worsen as more young people emigrate.

For hundreds of years, the Irish had left their homeland for hopes of a better life, swelling an Irish diaspora that grew to be larger than the population of the island itself. This trend continued until the 1990s, when the booming economy of the Republic of Ireland—the so-called "Celtic Tiger"—brought back some of those of Irish descent from abroad along with Eastern Europeans, Africans, and others. All of this reversed during the Financial Crisis and the austerity measures that followed, with Ireland sending around 1% of its population abroad annually since 2010. Last year, 3000 people were leaving Ireland a month, numbers not seen since the Great Irish Famine of the 19th century. As the Washington Post’s Max Fisher argues, mass emigration by the young and unemployed also has the twisted effect of reducing political opposition to austerity measures. With a long tradition, many Irish have reacted to austerity as they have to past harsh and shortsighted economic measures—by packing their bags and move abroad.

Countries across Europe have been hit by two demographic crisis—one brought on by the Financial Crisis itself, the other by the policies of economic austerity subsequently instituted. Countries that had for centuries been exporters of people, like Ireland and Portugal, became beacons for immigrants during the 1990s. Now Ireland, Iberia, Latvia, and Greece, have all returned to the past, sending thousands of immigrants abroad annually or even monthly. In a way, this emigration is a temporary safety valve of austerity, reducing the numbers of educated jobless domestically, and thus the potential political challenge to these policies. But the long-term result is bleak. Emigration shrinks the potential tax base and consumer base, lowering the possibility of governments raising revenue and a return to economic growth. The sharp decline in births also plants a time bomb in these societies; the undersized generation being born now will eventually have to somehow support a much larger generation of pensioners.

As Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva said in 2007, "A country without children is a nation without a future"—austerity policies are preparing these European countries for a bleak future indeed.