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Vice President for Democracy and Demography Demographic Change in the EU: A Threat to Democracy?

Democracy / SPEECH
Dubravka Šuica

Date: 29/06/2020
Vice President for democracy and demography Dubravka Šuica gave the following speech at an EPC webinar on 23 June 2020, following the launch of the European Commission's Report on the Impact of Demographic Change. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you EPC for organising this timely event. As Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, I can say that we are currently witnessing interesting moments in this portfolio. Democracy and demography do not exist alone in vacuum. They are cross-cutting and complementary. We must be open to sharing our knowledge based on concrete evidence in our bid to optimise our policy-making in the interest of all citizens. By entrusting one Commissioner to lead the work of the College in these two areas, President von der Leyen made an interesting connection. My mission letter highlights the aim of strengthening the links between people and the democratic institutions that serve them. To narrow the gap between expectation and reality. We must find different ways to get to know our citizens better. Establish trust. Solidarity. To have a frank exchange on how we can work better. Together. Knowing the impacts of demographic change contributes to this.

Report on the impact of demographic change

Demographic change is about people and their lives. Addressing demographic change is key to building a fairer and more resilient society. I work with all my colleague Commissioners to ensure that our policies take account of the implications and impact of demographic change. Hence the necessity of producing the Commission’s first ever report on the Impact of Demographic Change within the first 6 months of our mandate, on 17 June. The report relies on hard evidence and comparable data at EU and regional level. It brings out the major impacts of demographic change, such as on economic growth, labour markets, health and long-term care needs and public finances. We now have a valuable reference for our current and future work. If you have not already done it, I invite you to visit our dedicated website where you can find lots of information.

This report is a starting point; it does not provide solutions but launches a number of initiatives addressing demographic challenges. In the coming months we will present a Green Paper on Ageing looking at issues like intergenerational solidarity and loneliness. We will publish a Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas, designed to help rural areas in meeting challenges such as depopulation, connectivity, and limited access to services. Both reports are planned for adoption in 2021 and are underpinned by numerous actions taking place already this year, like the launch of the public consultation in relation to the long term vision. These issues are made more visible by COVID19.

Demographic change

For the European Union, what does demographic change mean in real terms? It means an ageing population, low birth rates and decreasing working-age population. These changes significantly affect our economy, our social and employment policies, public finances and territorial cohesion. Addressing this impact on our citizens and regions is a key priority for this Commission. It has to be.

The European Union’s population is ageing. Over the last fifty years, life expectancy at birth has increased by 10 years for both men and women. This is a significant achievement. However, living standards and social security are not the same everywhere. Approximately 31 million citizens live in low-income regions with a fast-declining population. Living longer in better health is one of the highest expectations of European citizens. This brings challenges and opportunities. Research and innovation have a role to play. We need to use our strengths and knowledge to prepare the future.

We need to see how we can best support people and regions to adapt to changing realities. The evidence in the Commission’s report on the Impact of Demographic Change will help identify the people and regions most affected by demographic change. The goal is to maintain or improve the quality of life for these regions and to equip ourselves with necessary tools to provide the best solutions and to support people through change, not by fighting against long- term demographic trends, but by providing opportunities.

This work on demographic change plays an important role in the aftermath of COVID-19 and in supporting the recovery and long-term growth. Managing the present to ensure a more prosperous future.

COVID-19 challenges and demography 

Crises provide an opportunity to grow and learn. COVID19 creates unprecedented challenges for our health, our economy and our social well- being and highlights the importance of addressing demographic challenges. First, the virus has not hit every Member State in the same way. It has not hit men and women in the same way. It has not hit the young and the elderly in the same way. A better understanding of a country's age structure, its population concentrations, household structures or intergenerational interactions is necessary. It can help predict the burden of critical cases and help in precise planning, notably in healthcare. Such knowledge can also alert local, regional and national governments of the need to take more effective or specific protective measures, and better organise a successful exit and recovery.

Solidarity and recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic shows us the importance of solidarity. The European Commission has proposed a clear, structured plan to lead us out of the crisis and into sustainable, long-term economic growth, based on a green transition and a digital transformation. The recently announced comprehensive package for European recovery, with its overall budget of €1.85 trillion [one point eight five trillion euros], will help Europe recover and supports multiple European sectors as we emerge from this period of constraint. Major initiatives like ‘Next Generation EU’ will boost the EU budget in the first crucial years of the recovery and contribute, together with the reinforced budget for 2021-2027, to making it sustainable, inclusive and fair. Together, we will exit the crisis. The Conference on the Future of Europe is an excellent tool to engage and involve all Europeans; to listen and to inform.

Democracy and Conference on the Future of Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,

Democracy is a word often used but its meaning is not always clear. A working definition could describe democracy as a means of collective decision-making where all are equal. Pure democracy is sometimes described as terrifying, especially in terms of the tyranny of the majority but we do not live in a pure democracy. Our representative democracy has worked well but it is not without fault. Some say it is not responsive enough, or is too mechanical or not inclusive enough. Should we get rid of it? Certainly not. Crises often force us to come up with new ideas. Our report on the Impact of Demographic Change highlights how our society has changed. We therefore need new thinking. We cannot solve new problems with outdated ways of looking at the world. Politics has changed. We are no longer business as usual. A tool like the Conference on the Future of Europe is a sign of new thinking at the EU level. It complements representative democracy and can increase trust in our democratic institutions.

The Conference will be a key platform to listen, learn and help find solutions for citizens. It will help tackle the twin challenge of democracy and demography and ensure that our systems of government and participation are dynamic, resilient, inclusive and represent the diversity of society. We need to address the root causes of problems and avoid a "geography of discontent".

Who present here today could have imagined the multiple effects of COVID-19 across our European Union? Surely this crisis shows that democracy and the institutions that underpin it have a key role to play. We understand that citizens’ trust in democracy cannot, and should not, ever be taken for granted. Citizens have been asking for greater participation in policy-making. We must listen. It can help to reinforce democracy in the EU. Now is the time to put innovative tools to work for democracy and the citizens, starting with the Conference on the Future of Europe.

To be clear, the Conference is not about one particular personality, institution, region or Member State. The Conference belongs to all of us. From citizens to civil society, to businesses, to national parliaments, regions and local authorities, to universities and think tanks and of course politicians and decision makers. We need to strengthen our representative democracy by offering an opportunity for enhanced deliberative democracy. We need to consolidate this partnership approach.

Here the European Parliament, the Council and Commission must lay the ground for the Conference. On 18 June, the European Parliament debated and adopted a Resolution urging the Council to agree its position on the Conference as soon as possible, reiterating the importance of directly engaging citizens and civil society. The Commission welcomes these recommendations. We need to agree on a Joint Declaration by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission setting the structure, scope and main principles of the Conference, and establish principles for those wanting to become our partners in this joint exercise. I look forward to this Joint Declaration and shortly thereafter to launching the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Geopolitics and demography

The world is a village. Demographic change has an impact on Europe’s geopolitical outlook and position in the world. Population trends and economic size play an important role in the world’s power structures. As Europe’s nations become smaller and less economically powerful relative to others, the need for the European Union to use all of its collective weight becomes all the more important. This report shows that we need to reflect and consider our position in the world.

The European Union’s share of the world population is diminishing. In 1960 the EU-27 population stood at 12%. Today it is around 6% and projected to fall to about 4% by 2070. Africa’s share in the world’s population is projected to rise from 9% to 32%, while Asia will likely decrease. Such demographic information is valuable when reflecting on how to forge our way forward in a changing world.

Concluding remarks

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our political system is primarily based on inputs and outputs. Politicians and various organisations lobby for the interests of their constituents and members. These are inputs. Based on these, politicians and governments then make policy. The result is outputs. But what happens in between is key to ensuring citizens benefit from these policies. I end by reminding you of why we are having the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is for the current and next generations of Europeans. Children make up 20% of the EU population, meaning that approximately 90 million people in the EU are children. President von der Leyen declared that “we need to invest more in the future of our children”. We need to act.

We are preparing a new comprehensive EU strategy for the rights of the child. This strategy will call for the active participation of children in the EUs democratic life, thereby strengthening the role of children in our Union’s present and future. Therefore, structured children’s dialogues will be an integral part of the Conference.

Tackling the impact of demographic change is at the heart of a Union that strives for more. It cuts across our work on the six headline ambitions in President von der Leyen’s Political Guidelines. This is ultimately about ensuring that nowhere and no one is left behind; a feeling, which can lead to a loss of faith in democracy. Citizens will play a leading role in building a more resilient, sustainable and fair Union. Together, citizens and democratic institutions, on the basis of solidarity and our common present and future, will find ways to give Europeans a greater say on how the European Union works for them. Let us have the courage to embrace this innovative opportunity and make a success of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Thank you.

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