Bulgaria, EU 'Demographic Bailout', and the New Frontier

Editorial |Author: Ivan Dikov | April 10, 2011, Sunday // 19:52|  views

Bulgaria has just become the first EU member state to have conducted a population census in 2011. The census results have expectedly revealed the scope of Bulgaria's demographic catastrophe – the country's population is declining rapidly, aging rapidly, and continuing to emigrate at a steady rate.

Actually, in some ways the census results were better than expected – to the extent that any silver linings can be seen when a country's population declined from 7.9 million to 7.3 million in just 10 years. Examples of those are that Bulgaria's population hasn't gone below 7 million yet, and that there has been a notable increase in the birthrate over the past decade.

So the "good news" is that Bulgaria's demographic situation is "only" apocalyptic while many had predicted it would be "hopeless." Of course, there is a really fine line between the two, if any.

Bulgaria's demographic condition is unique as it corresponds to its situation as the poorest country in the "rich countries' club." As the least developed among the developed states, it is exhibiting the worst characteristics of the two worlds.

Bulgaria is like the developed countries because its birthrate has declined dramatically and its population is aging; it differs from them in that it is failing to attract skilled young foreign immigrants. Bulgaria resembles the developing states in the sense that its best and brightest are emigrating at a constant rate; it differs from them because its birthrate is nowhere near those of the typical developing countries.

Conflicting scientific and pseudo-scientific studies have failed to come up with an exact estimate as to how long Bulgaria can keep functioning given the combined effects of these trends. It seems that before long the situation might indeed become apocalyptic.

No doubt that is bad for Bulgaria – for both the ethnic Bulgarians themselves and for all ethnicities living in the country even though some of the other communities might be inclined, wrongly, to see it another way. But to the extent that the Bulgarian leadership and elite have failed to demonstrate any level of concern and initiative to tackle this problem, the Bulgarian citizens can probably look with hope only to the wider EU.  

Because the demographic collapse of Bulgaria is rapidly, though not ostentatiously enough, becoming an EU problem. If unchecked, the worsening demographic situation not just in Bulgaria but also in some other parts of the European Union - most notably the Baltic states and parts of Central Europe - is bound to create or exacerbate (international) conflicts that can threaten the stability and prosperity of the entire EU.

That is why the emerging or already clearly visible demographic ordeals in parts of the EU must become the catalyst for unprecedented policies and measures on part of the European Union that can only be described as "EU demographic bailouts."

In the past year - since April-May 2010 - the EU has literally prevented the financial collapse of three of its member states, which are also members of the euro zone, Greece, Ireland, and now Portugal. The EU bailout aid granted to Greece had been unprecedented but it has subsequently become widely accepted. It emerged much the same way the EU has been evolving since the 1950s – by acquiring new competences in response to new challenges. Demographic bailouts, among other major challenges, should be on the agenda of the EU Council as soon as possible.

Why should the entire European Union care if some of its members collapsed demographically? That might be a bit hard to convey to the average citizen of Germany, the Netherlands, and France whose tax euros are already being poured in development aid in Romania and financial bailout in Greece. 

But on the level of high politics the explanation is obvious - all EU citizens need political stability and economic prosperity all across the entire EU territory because it will benefit them as well in the wider sense and the longer run. This has been the rationale of the entire EU policy of eastern enlargement and development aid, and has underlined the goal of accepting poorer former communist states and encouraging them to catch up politically and economically.

Just like the potential financial collapse prevented with EU financial bailouts, a demographic collapse of one or more peripheral EU states will torpedo both political stability and economic prospects not just for the respective country but also on the regional level, and will tangle the entire Union into the ensuing problems.

For Western Europe the "eastern enlargements" in 2004 and 2007 from Estonia to Bulgaria largely made sense as a way of pushing the EU frontier further and further away from Paris, Berlin, and London, and of moving the cordon sanitaire further to the east – all the way to Russia, the Black Sea, and Turkey, therefore keeping international troubles further from their own borders.

But if a country like Bulgaria is going to be a buffer state (by the way, in this region the same goes for Northern Greece) it will need a lot more than just Frontex mission guards to catch some illegal immigrants that went astray on its border with Turkey. It will need a sufficiently robust economy with a sufficiently robust and dense population to back its economic growth and political stability prospects.

Sadly, the current Bulgarian state has proven it is unable to achieve that on its own. The Bulgarian elite, conditional as this term might be, has even been unable to do the simplest and easiest thing – to fashion a professional administration that can guarantee that billions of euros of aid that the EU is generously pouring like manna can be put to good use.

Today's Bulgaria has certainly made a lot of economic and political progress compared with 20 or even 10 years ago. But it remains a state with weak institutions, weak cohesion, weak economy, and a weak civil society. It continues to be haunted by the prospect of becoming a failed state, its EU and NATO membership notwithstanding. Bulgaria's demographic collapse will shatter its economic growth – not least because the economy will simply run out of laborers (this situation almost came into being before the global economic crisis hit in 2008); what is more, it can generate inter-ethnic clashes and perhaps even international conflicts, God forbid.

As large swaths of land in Bulgaria are becoming literally dotted with ghost towns and villages, Bulgaria is turning into a new challenge for the EU, a frontier of a new kind and of a new age.

There is at least one more spot in the EU where the demographic collapse can cause international trouble – the Baltic states, especially Estonia and Latvia, with their declining populations and sizable ethnic Russian minorities. Many of the ethnic Russians in these countries reside there as "recognized non-citizens" refusing to accept local citizenship; their situation has been a grudge that Russia has been holding against the EU for more than a decade.

Bulgaria and the Baltic states are not the only ones facing tough demographic realities in the EU. CIA World Factbook figures indicate that in 2010 compared with 2002  the population of Estonia declined by -8.9%, Latvia -6.4%; Bulgaria -6.2%, Romania -1.7%; Lithuania -1.6%; Hungary -0.9%, Poland -0.5%. Germany's population also declined by 2% and most Western European states are struggling with falling birthrates, their populations going up only thanks to the influx of immigrants. 

While the wider EU demographic problems are substantial, their coupling with geographic factors creates graver threats for the EU in the medium run. If the EU as a whole wants stability and prosperity, it needs to strengthen demographically some spots in its Eastern periphery.

Much of these suggestions are based on the assumption that Turkey won't make it to the EU in the foreseeable future, if at all. This is not to say that it shouldn't, this is simply accounting for the realities. Leading Western European countries are decidedly against Turkish accession not only because Turkey does not as of yet meet certain membership criteria but because it is rapidly becoming so "big" in terms of population and economy, and so powerful that soon its accession talks will figuratively stumble upon the question of who is admitting who.

Turkey's political elite and society themselves hardly harbor a sincere wish to join the EU any more since if it is accepted, a rising regional superpower will have to be constrained by rules made up by Brussels eurocrats. Even if one assumes that Turkey can gain control of some of the commanding heights in the EU, it still hardly seems worth it for a power with such a great potential to subscribe to a whole bunch of nice EU restrictions – but restrictions nonetheless.

If Turkey does become an EU member the situation will be totally different. If anything, Bulgaria can benefit from it by becoming a hub linking it to the rest of the EU. But as Turkey and Russia are emerging as independent powerful EU neighbors, and the prospects for integrating the Western Balkans and potentially post-Soviet states are becoming increasingly important, the EU cannot afford to leave its Balkan member states and the Baltics in a state of demographic collapse because that will doom its efforts to spread peace, stability, democracy, and prosperity.

The EU 27 must draw lessons from what influx of migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa and in Northeastern Greece, and place the demographic situation of its frontier regions on the agenda of top priorities.

What should the "EU demographic bailout" for frontier regions like the Eastern Balkans and the Baltics look like?

The first step would be to recognize that certain parts of the EU – located in its periphery – are facing demographic catastrophes that can generate unforeseeable complications for the entire Union. For the time being, there appear to be two such "frontier regions" – the Eastern Balkans, i.e. Bulgaria, Greece and Romania – or some parts of the last two countries, and the Baltic states.

The second step would be to discuss and draft possible measures to help rectify the situation. In Bulgaria's case, several things come to mind but they can hardly be carried out without EU help. Such measures would include not just encouraging Bulgarian immigrants to go back to their countries as well as attracting ethnic Bulgarians and people with Bulgarian citizenship from non-EU countries but also providing incentives for citizens of the entire EU who wish to settle in Bulgaria.

Given its traditional isolation (i.e. in the communist period) and declining small population, Bulgaria has a very low capacity to integrate, host and resettle large numbers of immigrants whose backgrounds are very different from its own society. Faced with such a challenge, the Bulgarian institutions simply would collapse. That is why Bulgaria's best bet is to seek to attract EU citizens.

Many heavily industrialized and urbanized parts of Western Europe are literally overcrowded while much of Bulgaria offers great climate and nature, and organic food. The EU must start including "resettlement" incentives in its internal development and rural development policies. This would generate a doubly beneficial effect – it will help develop underdeveloped regions while alleviating the stress of overpopulation from regions with extreme density. Technically, this will be no emigration, only free movement of people within the European Union.

Clearly, economic prospects are the main factor for migration and if Bulgaria had booming economies, immigrants would be flocking to them on their own. But the European Union is not the Soviet Union. A "demographic bailout" would not be social engineering; it will be simply a set of measures to encourage and help out those EU citizens who wish to settle in such regions.

The population of rural Bulgaria has already been amazed to see thousands of Brits, Irish, Dutch, and Germans buy rural homes there and even move permanently. However, the respective Bulgarian municipalities are usually woefully ill-equipped to handle such new residents since the basic services on the spot such as public safety, healthcare, and education are at a deplorable level often chasing away anyone who might wish to live there.

A "demographic bailout" as a set of EU-accepted incentives can help spur settlement in the Union's frontier regions, which will have a number of EU-wide benefits: it will increase the cohesion of the EU, boost the poorer economies, and help parts of Eastern Europe catch up with the West better than anything else. But, most important of all, it will prevent a myriad of grave consequences that can plague the EU if some of its peripheral regions collapse demographically.

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Tags: census, population, Balkans, Baltic states, Eastern Balkans, illegal immigrants, demographic crisis, demographics, demographic changes, EU


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