Why There Will Be No Way Out of the Post-COVID Social Crisis Without the Family

A series of conferences promoted by the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe is raising awareness about key demographic and family issues in the Old Continent.

Children look on as people queue for food packages distributed by restaurant owner Norbert Bango (not pictured) in downtown Budapest on December 30, 2020. Hungarian families stricken by unemployment due to the Covid crisis who have fallen through the country's flimsy social security net have had to turn to a pop-up privately-run soup kitchen for help.
Children look on as people queue for food packages distributed by restaurant owner Norbert Bango (not pictured) in downtown Budapest on December 30, 2020. Hungarian families stricken by unemployment due to the Covid crisis who have fallen through the country's flimsy social security net have had to turn to a pop-up privately-run soup kitchen for help. (photo: Gergely Besenyei / AFP/Getty)

The demographic winter into which Europe entered in 2015 has dramatically intensified with the coronavirus health crisis, especially in the continent’s southern countries, where the preexisting economic hardship was already discouraging many couples from having children. 

This very concerning situation spurred the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE) — a Brussels-based umbrella organization of Catholic family associations — to organize a series of webinars, moderated by the Register, with high-level European policy-makers to concretely discuss the future of families in the aftermath of the epidemic. 

Indeed, while the European Union officially adopted a 1.8 trillion-euro Recovery Plan on Dec. 17, to address the enormous social and economic damage caused by COVID-19, families were never directly mentioned in the plan’s various packages. 


No Economic Health Without Family

According to the FAFCE’s analysis of the Recovery Plan for Europe, families will benefit from the plan’s specific categories like education, skills and employment, notably through the InvestEU program, and more indirectly through NextGeneration, a 750 billion-euro temporary instrument which takes the form of grants and loans for EU Member-States in order to boost their recovery. 

Nevertheless, the place granted to the institution of family is, in the foundation’s view, far from being sufficient. “We are not asking for privileges; we are asking for justice,” Vincenzo Bassi, the president of FAFCE, said during a Dec. 10 webinar in the presence of Hungarian Minister for Families Katalin Novák. “It is absolutely necessary to include family and demographic policies in the recovery plan, as without a demographic change — meaning more children — we will collapse in greater public debt, inflation and deficit.”

From the beginning of the crisis, Bassi has consistently asserted that the sustainability of the Old Continent, as well as all western countries, depends on families. He emphatically reiterated this conviction in his Jan. 12 conversation with Italian Minister for Family and Equal Opportunities Elena Bonetti, recalling how devastating the epidemic has been for those who were cut off from their family or did not have one. 

The minister, a member of the progressive party Italia Viva, could only agree with him in the light of her own observations during the 2020 health crisis.

“In the middle of all this, Italy managed to remain stable because families were stable,” she said, highlighting the “need to invest in younger couples and families”, since “the community and education that families provide don’t make them only people that must to be supported, but also actors of the future who must be activated and promoted.”

While mentioning the Italian Family Act approved in June that will take effect within the next two years, Bonetti said that it would “support families and make them the center of a new social pact by improving education at every level, help women be mothers and work at the same time, and provide family allowance.”

However, as evidenced in a analysis of the draft of the Italian Recovery Plan for the allocation of funds deriving from the EU Recovery Plan (transmitted to the European Commission Jan. 21), the Italian government hasn’t dedicated any part of these unprecedented funds to its Family Act, which received 3 billion euros from the Italian government’s 2021 budget, which amounts to 40 billion euros. 

 Furthermore, of the 222.9-billion euro in funds granted by the EU to Italy in order to help the country face the post-pandemic economic crisis, only 10.83 billion euros were dedicated to “Social infrastructures, families, communities and tertiary sectors,” which represents the smallest component of the Italian Recovery Plan. 

These figures make the FAFCE fear that none of these government policies will have a long-term structural effect on the current demographic crisis, which is reaching new heights in the country. 


Addressing Demographic Crisis  

But Italy and other southern European countries were not the only ones to have seen their birth rates drop significantly as a consequence of the health crisis. France, which still has the highest fertility rate of the euro zone, has recorded its lowest birth rate since the end of World War II. 

Similar trends were observed in several other European countries like Germany, the U.K. and Belgium, foreshadowing an increased aging of the continent’s population in the coming years. 

The FAFCE is convinced that such a state of affairs, already critical a year ago and negatively impacted by the coronavirus impact, can only be addressed by ambitious family policies. 

Hungary, which is one of the only western countries not to have suffered a collapse in its birth rate over the past year, embodies, in the eyes of supporters of pro-family policies, the model to be followed. 

“While there is a tendency in Europe to avoid talking about demographic winter, we made a different choice in Hungary and chose to publicly discuss this topic in order to better address it through openly family-friendly policies,” Novák, a member of the Hungarian conservative party Fidesz, said during the Dec. 10 webinar. 

Among the main Hungarian policies in favor of families is the opportunity for couples under 41 to get a 10-million-forint interest-free loan (about $35,000), when they decide to get married. The repayment is suspended for three years with the first pregnancy, and the credit is reduced by 30% when a second child is on the way. It is then totally cancelled with the third child. 

Similarly, Hungarian law enables young women to have their student loans cancelled when their first child is on the way, and maternity leave can be extended to three years. Family policies in the country represent 5% of the total GDP, which represents the world’s highest rate. 

“We have no intention to renounce our current policies for the sake of economic recovery because we believe that we can pursue both at the same time,” Novák added. “We are trying to give impetus to our economy through our industry but in the meantime, we are trying to support the building of family homes.” 

Indeed, since Jan. 1, a new law allows the Hungarian government to finance the building or the renovation of homes for families with children or those who are about to have some. 

“To ensure the future of our nation, we need young couples to get the means to start a family life,” Katalin Novák concluded. “Families should not be forced to give up on their wish to have children and we want to give them the freedom to choose.”

After focusing on Hungarian and Italian family policies, the next “FAFCE Dialogue” on Jan. 27, will deal with the ways to address the various social impacts of the ageing of the European populations with Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician who is the vice-president of the European Commission  for Democracy and Demography.