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Thank you Apostolos,
Members of the European Committee of the Regions,
It is a pleasure to join you today.
In your inaugural plenary of 12 February, we discussed the Conference on the Future of Europe – I will update you on this in a few minutes. 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 a vacuum. They are cross-cutting and complementary.
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. Knowing the impacts of demographic change contributes to this.
At all levels – local, regional, national and EU. I know that one of the President’s priorities is helping regions and cities understand and respond to the green, digital and demographic transitions. You now have an additional tool to help you in the form of the recently published Report on the Impact of Demographic Change.
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, public finances but also on regional level. 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 website is designed to develop into a repository of EU demographic intelligence over the coming years.
The publication of this Report is particularly timely in the context of the first ever Council Conclusions on Demography, in which the Council and the 27 Member States invited the Commission to deliver concretely on many areas in relation to demography. I hope that this Report is bringing some first answers to a number of Council’s recommendations.
The Report itself is structured in 2 parts. The first part is about listing demographic trends and the second is about anticipating the impacts those trends have on the European Union. It is accompanied by 27 statistical country fiches.
On the demographic trends, we’re taking note on what is happening, and comparing them between different countries, or between regions within the same country. As we identify the trends, we need to study their impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, to ensure that when we are setting out policies and initiatives, that these are applied in a way that does not leave anybody or anywhere behind.
The Impacts are the core subject of my Report. Allow me to offer you a quick overview of the analysis that has been done. We have divided them into 4 different categories. The first category is the labour market – because the first consequences of the shrinking workforce are obvious gaps that we are about to face there.
The only answer to it is a larger and more inclusive labour market. And I certainly hope that we managed in the Report to demonstrate how to best draw on all its strengths, talents and diversity in the EU, but also how to find ways to maintain productivity and growth through investments in skills and education.
The second category of impacts is the one on health and care services. Here, Covid 19 has exposed, in just a few weeks, the true extent of the disaster we potentially face if we do not have resilient health and care systems, in particular given our ageing population. We highlight in the Report both the growing burden of chronic diseases, as well as the shortages of professional staff, and the need to meet the growing demand for accessible good quality services.
The third category is the impact on public budgets. Put simply, an older European Union, with a smaller workforce is likely to increase pressure on public budgets. What the Report highlights in this case is the fact that our European Union will face a major challenge in funding its age related spending in a way that is fair across generations.
Finally the fourth impact, is on the regional dimension. Here I must highlight the need to address demographic transformation at the level closest to the citizens.
The Report on the Impact of Demographic Change is just the beginning of our work to come. I am particularly happy to address you today because I count on you and your cooperation – we need the European Committee of the regions to zoom the analysis into the regional dimension. At this initial stage, we have developed the country fiches on Member States level, but what is particularly interesting is not the dynamics between member states, but the one between regions or on sub-regional levels.
Because this is where depopulation is happening, this is where demography becomes tangible and where numbers take the form of lives. This is where the services are missing. This is where we need to tackle demographic change at its core. This is also the reason why we have a very strong territorial chapter in the Report.
Let me take this opportunity today to extend an invitation to you, the European Committee of the Regions and your rapporteurs, to take this analysis one step further and follow up with local and regional perspectives. The regions stand to benefit a lot from such work.
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 impacts on the labour market. 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. We are also starting to think about how to examine the impact of loneliness and isolation. These issues are made more visible by COVID19.
For the European Union demographic change in real terms 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. As I already said, 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 COVID19 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, 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.
Update on the Conference of the Future of Europe
Ladies and gentlemen,
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.
An endeavour 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. I know that the Committee of the Regions has a keen interest in making a success of the Conference on the Future of Europe. You will play a key role in the Conference and so I am sure you want to hear an update from me on this.
None of us 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. The most recent development is that Council has adopted its position, as had the European Parliament and the Commission. We can now take the next steps to launch the Conference.
We need to adopt 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. This includes the Committee of the Regions.
Ladies and gentlemen,
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. 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.
I look forward to your response to my invitation to complement the analysis in our Report on the Impact of Demographic Change and follow up with local and regional perspectives. And of course I look forward to working closely with you in making the Conference on the Future of Europe a concrete success for all.