“Greece nears agreement on bailout talks”, proclaims the headline in CityAM. I bet that stopped you in your tracks didn’t it? Well, unless you are ‘something in the City’, probably not. We are all thoroughly bored of the euro crisis, with all its impenetrable jargon, spin and counter spin, Jeremiahs and Cassandras, Greek tragedies and Lutheran moralism.
Of course the euro is a total disaster, but that is not the limit of its destructive power. The seemingly endless saga very effectively masks the long-term demographic problems that really underlie Europe’s present and future economic weakness. The longer it drags on, the longer the profound cultural changes Europe needs will fail to be addressed. However, sooner or later they will have to be: in more than one sense, demography is tomorrow’s news.
Fertility rates are influenced by a curious mixture of short-term economics and long-term cultural attitudes. For instance, economic booms and recessions have an obvious impact on birth rates, as does a nation’s tax and benefits structure. Politicians can obviously affect these matters, and thereby hope to change birth rates marginally in the short term. However, what is much more difficult – and much more interesting – are the very deeply rooted cultural attitudes that arguably strongly affect birth rates in the longer term. Changing those are very difficult, but attempts to do so may have the biggest affect on European culture since the ascendency of liberalism in the swinging 60s.
A very interesting case study here is Russia. A sparsely populated country always paranoid about its military vunerability, Russia faced a demographic calamity in the years of chaos following the collapse of the Berlin Wall: birth rates collapsed as death rates soared. Of course, this was partially due to economics, but it also pointed to a deeper cultural malaise. In the words of one commentator, that eternally tragic country was dying from a broken heart. However in recent years, Russia has performed a remarkable turn-around: death rates have dropped while birth rates have climbed to around 1.6 births per woman. Admittedly that is still way below replacement level, but much improved from the nadir of 1.17 births per woman in 1999, and much better than many other European countries.
Yes, some of that no doubt comes down to more favourable economic conditions and tax incentives, but what is interesting is Russia’s cultural response: obviously formally communist and therefore officially atheist, its leader Vladimir Putin, has essentially resurrected the idea of Holy Russia: the position of the Orthodox Church in Russian society has been restored to one of considerable influence, and the country follows a strongly nationalist line in both domestic and foreign policy. It strongly defends the traditional family, recently – and to the great disgust of Western liberals – getting a strongly pro-family resolution passed in the United Nations. Sceptical of all minority rights, the country is, notoriously, vehemently anti gay rights to the point of virulent homophobia.
Russians are of course, not known for their moderation, and doubtless even the most socially conservative of us would find some of their current attitudes and measures distasteful and excessive. Nonetheless, the country probably calculates correctly that it simply cannot afford to accommodate the excesses of the culturally liberal West if it to have any hope of long-term survival.
Nor can the rest of continental Europe. You can make a very strong argument that governments have no business in inculcating a spirit of ‘God and Motherland’ in its people as authoritarian Russia seeks to do, and there are obviously profound dangers in doing so. That said, the clock is ticking louder and louder for the liberal ‘me, myself and I’ attitudes that have held increasing sway over Europe since the swinging 60s: some swing back to socially conservative attitudes would seem essential.
It’s either that or a wasteland.