16 October 2019

Depopulation, development and security. How and where do we reach alert level’s limit?

Gheorghe Tibil

One of the major topics debated within “The national security policy, from strategic thinking to security and defence institutions” conference, organized by the Defence and Security Monitor and Mediafax, on October 3rd, was the major risk raised by the negative demographic tendencies, which started 30 years ago and does not seem to stop. State’s population huge decrease- almost 5 million people and the pessimistic evolution scenarios the domestic and international research centers work with ahead of the 2050, have a great impact on security and defence, despite the serious negative consequences for country’s economy.

Image source: Mediafax

Within a broader geographical context, we see that the demographic crisis is affecting all states in the former socialist bloc, seriously raising doubts on the benefits and logic of area’s European integration process. In most of the cases, the recent decrease of population is way above the losses provoked by the World War II. Which are the political, economic and security consequences of this shock? How are states in the region reacting to counterbalance this crisis? How are the East-European capitals reacting to this hemorrhage of their own human capital? These are only some of the extremely important questions for these societies’ future.

The situation in the region- critical, however with different nuances

The post-Cold War era came with demographic phenomena like fecundity and birth rate’s decrease, the migration of an important part of the mature and young population for reasons such as the university coursework and economic-financial resorts, which led to population’s aging. Despite these general nuances, the 11 Eastern and Central Europe states integrated in the European Union in the last 15 years (EU 11: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) are going through a major demographic crisis, unpreceded  in the European contemporary societies. Population’s serious decrease in the last three decades and the intensification of this tendency after the European integration is a historical negative premiere, which was not the result of extreme social phenomena like wars or pandemics.

A study recently published by the Population & Societes, a magazine of the National French Institute for Demographic Studies, is presenting the magnitude of this demographic collapse. In 2018, EU-11 countries had 103 million people, which is 20% of European Union’s total population (EU-28). Thirty years earlier, in 1989, the total of this area was 111 million people, which is 23% of all 28 states population. Since 1989 up to the present, the population of these countries has decreased with more than 7%. Each country’s evolutions are quite different and the more the state is closer to the East of the continent, the more the depopulation is bigger. Therefore, Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania have the biggest decreases, with 20% diminution of the population. Estonia and Romania have recorded a 16% decrease, Croatia 11%, Hungary 8% and Poland- the most populated country of the EU-11 group- only 3%. Three of them- the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia- have recorded a small increase, from 2 to 4%.

This regional phenomena is taking place along with progresses in most of the other EU members, states wherein the population has increased with 13% in the same analyzed period, despite the slow recent decrease in the Mediterranean states (Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain). Hence, currently, there are between 15 and 18 million citizens from Central and Eastern Europe living in Western Europe. This massive human capital transfer has some historical roots, as the East-European states were traditionally a labor force source for the Western Europe, except for the times of political restrictions and human mobility barriers, specific to the Cold War. The ideological base of the recent evolution is the freedom of movement right of the people inside the Union, after the elimination of discrimination between citizens of a member state and citizens of the other EU states, who live or work in that specific country.

Recent studies have also revealed a true mix of effects, from positive ones, like intra-community mobility and European cohesion and integration increase through the cultural diversity inside the new supra-European culture, investments increase in the East and the diminution of economic disequilibrium between the West and the East, to negative effects, like the massive brain drains, Eastern countries’ work force crisis and the “exploitation” of East-Europeans in the host countries, focused on anti-migration, the attempts to restrict their access to social benefits in the West for people coming from the East and populist attitudes against the European project are, broadly, the obvious proofs of this tendency.

How are the states in question reacting?

The recent departure of almost 20 million people from Central and East European states towards the West has led to a major disequilibrium in the native countries, having important economic, social, cultural and security effects. The demographic shock was felt differently from state to state, hereof the distinct social and governmental reactions. The most affected country is Bulgaria, which went from 9 million inhabitants in 1989, to 7 million people. Romania had quite a similar shock, given that in the first decade since joining EU (2007-2017) had recorded the departure of almost 3,5 million Romanians, wherefrom more than two thirds were above 40 years old.

In the initial phase of this massive emigration process, experts and mass-media have focused especially on the positive effects, which is the important financial resources and organizational, socio-political and occupational know-how transfer of the Western societies to the native communities, as well as the solution of the lack of recruitment opportunities, after the 2008-2010 crisis. Slowly, however, the accent was directed more on the negative effects of this area’s depopulation, which is a major crisis of the labor forces, negatively affecting the development and modernization potential of the native communities. However, the critical approaches, still small, against this entire process, reveals the hidden transfer, including a financial one, of resources from East to the West, caused by the loss of trained and mature  human capital with serious public investment in the native countries.

Despite the economic-financial dimensions of this phenomenon and the collapse of the labor force, the depopulation of countries in the region and the pessimistic speculations on these states’ evolution on long and medium term is directly questioning the ability to provide national security and, when the chips are down, the persistence of these nations’ national identity. The national topic is all the more critical as a great part of the countries in question have quite reduced dimensions and millions of inhabitants, with important minorities and, most of the times, with complex border issues. Due to these reasons, the current demographical crisis is tied with the national issue.

The serious deterioration of the main demographic elements in most of Central and Eastern countries is felt within the experts’ community and the society. We can also see a true social-psychological effect, which is the emergence of a complaint and social concern atmosphere in terms of the future of the countries affected by recent emigration. Given these circumstances, the affected states were forced to react by adopting governmental decisions that we can batch in three categories: economic-financial measures to deter the exodus, the encouragement of those who left to come back home and the introduction of foreign labor force to cover the great needs of local economic agents; pro-natality policies to stop population’s birth collapse and the comeback to natality rate to provide the replacement of the current population; and specific measures dedicated to preserving the national identity of millions of resident emigrants in the Western space.

Romania and Poland- a comparison with… predictable conclusions

Given that the current demographic crisis’ size is more serious in Romania, we would expect Bucharest’s actions to normalize the situation to be more consistent. In fact, after analyzing the adopted measures of the two governs, following each of the three policies presented above, we see the exact opposite situation, definitely favoring Warsaw in terms of seriousness, effectiveness and the level of allotted resources for governmental measures to control the crisis effects.

Unlike Bucharest, where diaspora is only manage through the eyes of a political confrontation, Poland has a cross-party consensus in terms of attracting emigrant Polish people in the West back to their native country and it was assumed by the political forces as a true strategic priority. It became a serious ritual for the politicians and the Polish authorities targeting Great Britain, a country where are living almost 1 million Poles, to repeat the call for their people living in Great Britain to come back home. It is also more than suggestive the call of the Polish prime-minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to the British authorities- “Give us our people back!”, at the end of January, after its visit in Great Britain. Following the same reaction is also the recent letter of the Polish ambassador to London, Arkady Rzegocki, by the Poles in UK, by which he is “seriously encouraging to consider getting back to their nation that needs them”, all the more that the Brexit is becoming more and more complicated and negative for the European residents. We have seen nothing similar coming from Bucharest’s authorities, which do not seem to encourage their patriots to come back home.

For the past years, both economies have been increasing, with 4% of the annual GDP, staying at the top of the European economic increase rate. This process came along with dole’s decrease to unpreceded numbers (3,3% in Poland and 3,8% in Romania), the increase of the minimum wage (523 euro for Poland, 265 for Romania) and the medium one (1165 euro Poland and 570 euro Romania) to record numbers, which are important arguments for cooling down the departures from both countries. At the same time, thanks to the rates supported by the economic increase, both states are facing a serious labor force crisis, being forced to call on workers outside the community space. In this area also, the numbers available within Eurostat for 2017 shows a major approach difference. With a total number of 600.000 residence labor force permits issued to extra-community foreigners, Poland is by far EU’s champion in the field, meanwhile Romania has only issued 2965 such documents. In terms of the Polish situations, most of the foreigners come from Ukraine, providing the bulk of agriculture, food and services employees, this way replacing the Polish nationals, who are either refusing such work places with small salaries, or have left for other parts of Europe, for bigger salaries. It is noteworthy that the residence permits for citizens coming from Moldova that Poland has issued, in 2017, a number which is four times bigger than Romania (7803 comparing to 2204).

This comparison definitely favors Warsaw in terms of pro-natality policies fields also, as the Polish authorities have focused on the financial support for families with children. It is also important that starting with 2016, the monthly allowance for kids is 120 euro (a level comparable with the developed Western countries), issued with no restriction regarding the income level, for the second child. Until March 2019, Romania’s allowance level was 18 euro, then being increased to 32 euro! We can see a ¼ rapport between these two states, comparing to ½ when it comes to minimum and medium wage.


A special importance when looking at the security field effects are the political destinations for the conservation of cultures and the national identity of the families of millions of migrants  who live in the Western space. Currently, there is a huge discussion on the potential return home of those who left many years ago, or recently, on a pessimistic or an optimistic key. Without serious research done on the Romanian diaspora in the West (the latest surveys, paid by the Romanian Government, on Romanians in Italy and Spain, were made more than a decade ago), we cannot but speculate on this topic. Lacking of major crises to affect Western countries, to generate a serious economic decline, it is very difficult to imagine a massive return of those who already got great jobs in the countries they emigrated including with their families (indefinite period, properties and well-integrated kinds in the local education systems).

In order to keep such option opened in the future, it is important to keep the national identity, especially among the kids and young people who are living and studying in completely different languages and environments comparing to their parents’ generation. Learning the Romanian language is the basis of this effort; we cannot talk about national identity without it, all the more that the risk of total assimilation and the ignorance of our ancestors’ language to a second or third generation is important. In this area also, the governmental measures seem to be more and more consistent for the Poles. In Western Polish diaspora, they have actions supported and funded by the Warsaw government like the organization of weekend schools, by renting the classic scholar units form those countries, to teach the Polish language, history and culture, whereat are participating an important number or kids and teachers from those communities. This is not the case of the Romanian diaspora, where such initiatives are being developed mostly in the extra-governmental area, mainly involving churches and religious communities created by Romanians in the West, through parochial weekend schools. As much as important these volunteering-based initiatives would be, their ability to cover a significant number of kids and adolescents is quite limited. Therefore, the de-Romanization risk of a whole generation who was born and raised in the Western space is really serious, having negative consequences for the future of these Romanian communities and diminishing the chances of a possible return home.

What shall be done…

Romania’s post-communist demographic picture is critical. The population is decreasing and aging, natality is decreasing and the young and mature people that actually have work potential have left their countries and continue to do so. Experts’ analyses and the special institutions’ estimations in the country and abroad are revealing these negative tendencies. A recent analysis published by professor Vasile Ghetau, director of the Demographic Research Center Vladimir Trebici of the Romanian Academy, is revealing the magnitude of this true demographic shock from dramatically reaching the critical rate (the loss of another 4-5 million people in the following 30 years), to intensifying the demographic aging process and the increase of mature population’s economic responsibility comparing to the senior population (senior people’s dependency report will get doubled by 2050).

Given these circumstances, the topic must, again, become a priority Bucharest’s authorities, which have the responsibility to initiate, apply and fund state policies following the three directions presented above. A special attention should be directed to migration and the Romanian diaspora in the West, such as a multidimensional long-term strategy to go beyond the policy focused on ballots and to re-establish the trust among those who left the political and governmental space from Bucharest and, ultimately, a concrete support to continue the Romanian identity in the Western space.

This is all the more important that sociologists have drawn the attention that we need time for such policies. As Professor Dumitru Sandu from the University of Bucharest was recently underlining, “we cannot make miracles happen overnight in terms of diaspora policy, migration policy. We must think of a process, a strategy that Romania is eagerly refusing lately. We do not have migration policies, we do not have diaspora policies”. With an annual budget allotted to the Ministry for Romanians Abroad, which is almost 6 million euro, we can hardly imagine the implementation of a real strategy to keep the national identity outside Romania.

Not least, given the connections between the current demographical crisis and the potential to develop and ensure country’s security, the future National Strategy in the field could address the actions of the Romanian state institutions more concretely. Starting from the current situation of the main demographic phenomenon, we need to launch some clear and effective policies, to ensure the proper financial resources, which must target the three actions presented above. The alert level we are in currently is asking for more than general statements, such as “adopting coherent measures to accomplish the deterioration rate of the demographic situation” (SNAT, 2015).