Page last updated at 09:19 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 10:19 UK

Solving Europe's population crisis

By Paul Henley
BBC News

For Helena Frith Powell, having a third child was a luxury she could afford only by moving to France.

She and her husband left their native Sussex, in England, to live in a converted farmhouse in the Languedoc region, in south west France.

Helena Frith Powell and her children in the garden of their home in France
France is far more family-friendly than the UK, Helena says

Her bigger-than-average family is favoured by the French government.

On top of the usual generous maternity and paternity benefits, mothers of third children are free to take a year off work, largely at the authorities' expense.

Since 2005, 750 euros ($1,160; 589) a month have been on offer, regardless of how much the mother was earning before.

Plus, there are perks: subsidised first class rail travel, holiday vouchers and money towards childcare at home if you do not want to make use of the free state creche facilities.

"My eldest daughter, Olivia, was at a nursery that cost us something horrendous like 60 (76 euros; $118) a day in England and I was fined heavily if I was at all late. Often, my train was delayed getting back from London," Helena explains.

"In Britain," she says, "there are barriers to having children and having a nice life with them whereas, in France, the whole of society seems to be geared up to supporting big families, children and you having children".

The French public are accustomed to such providence from the state, even if they are learning not to take it as much for granted as they used to.

En famille

In the town hall in nearby Beziers, officials point proudly to figures showing steadily rising birth-rates in the region.

At a heavy cost to the economy, France is bucking the European trend, with the continent's highest fertility rate of just over two children, on average, per woman of child-bearing age.

A man dressed as the devil jumps over babies during a religious festival in Spain
Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe

In the square outside, a couple of fathers told me that they whole-heartedly believed families were worth supporting.

"Maybe it is a hangover from days after the war when we were told to build up the population," said one man, "but any help from the state has to be a good thing".

A short train ride over the border into Spain, the situation for families is very different.

Lola Valarde, President of the Institute for Family Policies, says Spain is Europe's meanest country in terms of subsidies for parents.

"Perhaps it is because families have always been taken for granted in Spain but the situation here is bad," she says.

In order to qualify for the same benefits as you would get for three children in France, you have to have 16 in Spain.

The government spends just 0.7% of its gross domestic product on family subsidies coming, once more, bottom of the league.

Spain's former Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar (image courtesy of Spanish government)
I would not dare to deliver a sermon to other European countries, but of course our government is ready to share our experience and our points of view
Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar
Spanish socialist party

Perhaps it is not surprising that Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates, not just in Europe, but globally.

Lola Valarde says widespread child poverty, family break-ups and accompanying social problems are spreading rapidly.

A hole in the work-force of the future is, however, not likely to come about in Spain, because an economic fix is already in place.

The country's population stayed constant at around 39 million for decades.

But in the past nine years or so, it has been boosted to about 45 million. The explanation is immigration.

In 2005, the socialist government in Spain introduced an amnesty for illegal immigrants who could prove they had been working in the country for at least two years.

Some 700,000 migrants were made legal overnight and, at the same time, had to start paying taxes.

The result of this and other immigration-friendly policies has been to help create one of the continent's most dynamic economies.


But despite criticism from other European governments, worried about an influx of newly-legalised immigrants from Spain, and from the conservative opposition, concerned about finite resources and a threat to indigenous Spanish culture, the government says it is proud of its approach to immigration.

But Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar is a former justice minister on the executive committee of the governing socialist party.

"We are well aware of the risks of things going wrong if there is a significant down-turn in the economy", he says.

"When trouble comes, people are ready to react against migrants and put the blame on them for a lack of resources on the part of the authorities.

"I would not dare to deliver a sermon to other European countries, but of course our government is ready to share our experience and our points of view. We in Europe are to face migrations on an unprecedented scale."

You might think that Spain's workforce would feel threatened by the recent influx.

Javier Urbina, head of the international office of the Metal, Construction and Woodworkers Union, told me his members welcomed foreign blood.

"We consider the immigration of workers in our society absolutely a positive thing.

"They are not only workers, they are citizens. It is positive for our social security system, positive for our labour market and positive for our living standards."

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