Once again, the EU summit will ignore Europe's greatest threat

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

With this summer’s European Council just a month away, now seems a good time to ask “what’s the summit for?” At first glance, the EU leaders’ agenda suggests that’s a stupid question because it’s dominated by the unending nonsense of Brexit, the North-South deadlock over eurozone reform and how the EU should respond to the Trump Administration’s trampling of the bonds that hold our unruly world together.
But these are not the issues that heads of government ought to be addressing; they are matters their ministers should thrash out. Wolfgang Schüssel, who as Austria’s chancellor from 2000-2007 was a European Council stalwart, no doubt speaks for other national leaders when explaining why the focus of EU summits is so often wrong.
The diminished role of foreign affairs ministers, he reckons, means that when they fail to resolve problems they kick them upwards. The European Council, Schüssel commented to me a few years ago, thus becomes “a forum of late deciders”, exacerbating the EU’s slowness and inefficiency.

EU summits lack the strategic vision they were originally intended to provide

EU summits lack the strategic vision they were originally intended to provide. Their focus is on tactical responses rather than the far greater challenges that confront Europe.
The ageing of European society and the pros and cons of an EU-wide immigration policy to compensate for shrinking workforces raise huge questions that only national leaders can answer, yet they are relegated to ministers far down the pecking order.
Perhaps the implications of Europe’s demographic decline are too awful to contemplate for the prime ministers gathered at a European Council. Unless EU countries start to plan ahead, its effects could be catastrophic. Looming labour shortages and the ineluctable pressures of ageing on pensions and healthcare will increase Europe’s need for immigrant workers, with populist backlashes threatening the political integrity of the EU, and possibly its survival.
There’s nothing new about alarming demographic projections. Ageing coupled with low birth rates ‒- the EU average is now about 1.5 children per couple ‒- have led to countless warnings by the European Commission and international agencies like the IMF and OECD. All were greeted by “a deafening silence”, comments a recent report entitled “‘Demographic Suicide” ’ by the Fondation Robert Schuman. This Paris-based think tank warns that 2050 will see the EU’s present 240m-strong active workforce reduced by 49 million people

No one can yet tell whether AI and robotics will somehow make up for shrinking workforces

The combination of infertility and longevity is a time bomb that will start exploding in 2030. By then, Europe’s over-65s will constitute four-tenths of the population, while the numbers of younger people coming onto the labour market will be down by a third. The pensions outlook is a nightmare because by mid-century the proportion of working age people to pensioners will have shrunk from today’s ratio of 4:1 to just 2:1.
This adds up to a re-landscaping of Europe’s political economy. No one can yet tell whether AI and robotics will somehow make up for shrinking workforces, but it’s hard to see how they can compensate for lost taxes and greatly reduced consumption.
Above all, there’s the immigration issue. So far, the migrant crisis of 2015/16 has divided EU countries against each other and within themselves. And that concerned just a million-plus Syrian and other refugees, whereas a report almost a decade ago by former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana suggested 100 million newcomers will be needed by mid-century to bridge Europe’s demographic deficit.
These are the big questions the European Council should be discussing. Solutions may not come readily to hand, but at least the focus of an EU summit could trigger the constructive debate that Europe’s policymakers have been avoiding.

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