Europe’s conservative populists pit migrants against babies

The Economist
Sep 21, 2023 04:50 PM IST

Viktor Orban and Giorgia Meloni want their citizens to have more children

Within moments of a wedding cake being cut, one of the happy couple’s parents inevitably drops a hint about extending the family tree, nudge nudge. By the time the honeymoon is over, lobbying for sprogs is in full swing. Only when the request is fulfilled do the young parents realise the production of a single offspring merely fuels demands for many more. If such endless nagging by in-laws seems exhausting, imagine such pestering done by national leaders, with Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Giorgia Meloni of Italy in the role of berating wannabe grandparents.

Imagine such pestering done by national leaders, with Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Giorgia Meloni of Italy in the role of berating wannabe grandparents.(AP) PREMIUM
Imagine such pestering done by national leaders, with Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Giorgia Meloni of Italy in the role of berating wannabe grandparents.(AP)

Like much of the rich world, Europe is in the midst of a demographic winter. No EU country is producing anywhere near enough babies to sustain its population. This vaguely worries liberals, who wonder about the sustainability of the welfare state as retirees start outnumbering workers. But conservative leaders like Mr Orban and Ms Meloni paint the struggle for babies as existential. To them, families mark the bedrock of an orderly state—as long as they are straight and of local ethnic stock, that is. Holding back on procreating undermines the nation, no less. Even worse are those who think migration might offer a quick fix to the demographic morass Europe finds itself in. Who wants migrants when you can have homegrown babies instead? So make babies, people.

Mr Orban and Ms Meloni were at their naggiest at a “Demographic Summit” organised by the Hungarian authorities between September 14th and 16th. Held every two years since 2015 in Budapest, the forum provides a safe space for conservatives tired of liberal takes on everything from those migrants to LGBT rights. Mr Orban held court in front of delegates from dozens of countries, many of them from central Europe and the Balkans. After boasting of his five children, he explained how there is “no freedom without authority”, an Orwellian pastiche. It is making babies that allows us to “become who God intends us to be”, especially women. Ms Meloni, mother of one and this year’s special guest, blamed hostility towards families for derailing the birth rate; she now has a minister whose job title includes boosting that single statistic. “We want Italy to go back to having a future,” she said. Cultural interludes livened up the summit: dancers in traditional garb frolicked around a wholesome couple only one or two plum brandies away from discovering the secrets of procreation for themselves.

Demography is the perfect issue for Mr Orban in particular to burnish his reputation beyond Hungary. In Europe, he is a bête noire, thanks to his pro-Russia stance and perennial fights with the EU over his hobbling of the judiciary. But to those who think Europe is facing a demographic abyss, none of this matters. Pesky questions around judicial arrangements, or even issues Brussels types bang on about like climate change, are small fry compared with the baby drought. Better yet, the “progressive elite” can be cast as baddies, the instigators of an unwitting demographic death-cult. By giving individuals too much licence to focus on their own wants, liberals have lost the plot. Women have become prone to thinking of children as a pointless sacrifice. Now they must go back to acknowledging their duty to society. One speaker spoke of feminism needing to be replaced with “familism”.

Hungary thinks it is showing the way. When Mr Orban regained power in 2010, its fertility rate was just 1.26 children per woman, the lowest in the EU. Now it is in the middle of the European pack, at 1.52—still well below the 2.1 replacement number, but a marked improvement. Conservatives credit family-friendly policies. Women with four kids or more are exempt from income tax for life, a measure that might be extended to those with just three. Would-be parents can apply for loans that get written off as they have children. Fertility clinics have been nationalised. Whether those costly measures are at the root of the baby mini-boom is the matter of debate: incentives probably bring forward child-bearing, but have little impact over the long term. Other countries in Europe from Sweden to Slovenia have seen similar surges in the past, especially after baby slumps. Nobody quite knows why. When it comes to understanding long-term trends, demographers make economists look like oracles.

Hit me baby, one more time

Natalists lay another charge on liberals: that what they really want is to replace missing Hungarians or Italians with immigrants. For conservatives, to bring in adult foreigners instead of pushing up the domestic birth rate is as baffling as a newly married couple eschewing having a child in favour of adopting a 25-year-old Senegalese bloke. In the same week as her jaunt to Budapest Ms Meloni visited Lampedusa, a Mediterranean island belonging to Italy where around 7,000 people had landed from north Africa in just two days. Populists paint the fight for babies and the one against migration as two sides of the same coin: make babies or else we will have little choice but to welcome these African hordes. This is, to put it politely, utterly crackers. Those risking their lives in small boats have not recently consulted Hungarian fertility tables.

As a mainstream media type, Charlemagne stands as immediately suspect in the eyes of the Budapest crowd (though perhaps his track record as a father of three will lend him a degree of credibility). But as far as he can tell, the progressive elite’s plot is even more dastardly than the Hungarian-Italian axis suspects. Liberals do not, in fact, see immigration as a straight-up replacement for baby-making. Their approach is, if anything, worse: it is to do nothing. People should make babies according to their own preferences, not those of the state; occasionally the tax or child-care systems can help with measures that make it easier for parents to work. Separately, some people will move across countries and cultures, not to “replace” anything or anyone but in a bid to improve their family’s lot. Quite plausibly all this will kick up some problems down the line; but they are vastly better than the solutions being proffered by Mr Orban and his friends.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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