EU FUTURE | A AGEING EUROPE

“The EU will, in the coming decades, face a number of challenges associated with an ageing society. There are three main factors that explain this trend: persistently low fertility rates, increasing life expectancy, and a baby-boom generation that will soon start to reach retirement age.” [EUROSTAT | 2010]

The first paragraph (bellow) of the population segment of ‘Europe in figures: Eurostat yearbook 2010’ can’t really start on a bleaker note. It points out that support for the elderly is bound to be an ever-increasing problem, as the ratio of over-65s to working-age people will reduce from 4:1 in 2008 to an estimated 2:1 in 2060. The need for elderly support is further compounded by the traditional break-up of the traditional family unit resulting in a larger percentage of older people living on their own.

There are two main components of population change: natural population change and net migration; one possible measure to counteract our ageing population is therefore to receive and integrate migrants. Yet there are various factors that promote a resistance to immigration. One cannot expect migrants to change their cultures and beliefs on entering a new country. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and David Cameron have all recently made speeches saying that Multiculturalism has not worked and that migrants do not fully integrate within their cultural framework. There is also the historical notion that even the almighty Rome was brought down by rampant immigration  – it is a common myth in Southern Europe to blame the fall of the Roman Empire on immigrants. Immigration-related scaremongering can be taken to an extremist view: some raise fears that rampant Muslim immigration may lead to Europe becoming an Islamic state in a few decades.

As immigration becomes a bigger issue, we can expect more Nationalist, or even Fascist, movements gaining popularity in various countries. For example, immigration is also an issue for EU hopefuls Finland  – even though foreign citizens make up only 3.1% of the Finnish population, the rightist True Finns recently gained over 11% of the votes, becoming the third largest group in parliament. Yet the Finnish population is one of the most ageing populations in the world, and they too will face, in a few years’ time, that same problem of how to be able to support their old people.

It is understandable that most European countries are not really discussing the option of immigration and integration as solution to that problem. While my own small island of Malta may have a valid argument for not accepting migrants on the basis of its staggering population density, Malta is letting European countries and the USA ‘cherry pick’ illegal immigrants that are caught up on the island. Thus the immigrants that are not ‘selected’ to go in a foreign country tend to be less qualified, possibly denting the Maltese economy and adding woes on social benefits. Nevertheless, many Maltese seem to want to celebrate every time the US selects a few migrants to repatriate and local newspapers even consider it as a minor triumph. One could argue that this is a shortsighted view that denies Malta the skilled workers that we will need to support our economy.

Yet the individuals who celebrate losing an able workforce and turning immigration into a huge government expense, are the same people who ask how we can solve the impeding pension crisis which is affected, among other things, by an ageing population and an unskilled workforce.

Malta represents other countries in microcosm. The UK’s coalition government recently introduced a permanent cap on the admission of skilled migrants, despite warnings from economists and business leaders that it would harm growth.  Immigration is not just a problem, it is also part of a solution to bigger problem.

Active ageing plan adopted

The Euro­pe­an Com­mis­sion approved a four-year action plan for the Active and Healthy Age­ing Euro­pe­an Inno­va­tion Part­ner­ship (EIP) which pilot was launched a year ago. In Novem­ber 2011 the EIP Steer­ing Group deliv­ered a Stra­te­gic Imple­men­ta­tion Plan iden­ti­fy­ing pri­or­i­ty are­as and spe­cif­ic actions, for pub­lic author­i­ties, busi­ness­es and civ­il soci­e­ty. Dem­o­graph­ic age­ing is one of the most seri­ous chal­len­ges for Europe and bright­er prospects are not expect­ed. Fore­casts show that the num­ber of Euro­pe­ans aged 65 and over will almost dou­ble over the next 50 years.

 Pub­lic spend­ing on health are already 7.8% of GDP in the EU, and by 2060 it is expect­ed to increase by 3% due to age­ing. The Com­mis­sion’s deci­sion is a fol­low-up for imple­men­ta­tion of the spe­cif­ic actions that will improve eld­er­ly cit­i­zens’ lives, help them to con­trib­ute to soci­e­ty as they grow old­er, and reduce pres­sure on health and care sys­tems.

The Stra­te­gic Imple­men­ta­tion Plan spec­i­fies five actions to be start­ed this year. Con­cert­ed actions in at least 30 Euro­pe­an regions have to test inno­va­tive ways to ensure patients fol­low their pre­scrip­tions. Also coop­er­a­tion will be boost­ed to help pre­vent func­tion­al decline and frail­ty, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on mal­nu­tri­tion. Among the actions is improve­ment of the uptake of inter­op­er­a­ble ICT inde­pend­ent liv­ing solu­tions through glob­al stand­ards to help old­er peo­ple stay inde­pend­ent, mobile and active for longer.

We urge all stake­hold­ers involved to con­trib­ute to our efforts and help us tack­le the dem­o­graph­ic tran­si­tion head-on, said Vice Pres­i­dent Neel­ie Kroes. Health Com­mis­sion­er John Dal­li point­ed out that the Com­mis­sion is deter­mined to sup­port the rap­id imple­men­ta­tion of the pri­or­i­ty are­as agreed by the EIP and has the ambi­tion to achieve tan­gi­ble results in the next two years.

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