‘Baby machines’: eastern Europe’s answer to depopulation | World news – The Guardian

Nationalised IVF clinics, generous loans for couples who promise to procreate imminently and lifetime income tax exemption for having four or more children. Welcome to Viktor Orbns drive to get Hungarian women to breed: family-friendly Hungary, in the words of the giant banners that now greet arrivals at Budapest airport.

Across Europe, as falling birthrates lead to projections of shrinking populations, policymakers are pondering a question: can we pay people to have more children?

Countries with rightwing populist governments have taken the lead in answering with a resounding yes, as boosting fertility dovetails with their anti-migration and family values talking points. Nowhere is the campaign to get women to have more children more intense than in Orbns Hungary. The countrys fertility rate the average number of children per woman reached an all-time low of 1.23 in 2011 and remains well below the level of 2.1 that is required for population levels to remain constant.

Orbn is spending around 5% of GDP on the policies. Without money, you cant reverse bad trends, he has said.

It follows neatly on from the governments relentless anti-migration message of the past five years. In all of Europe there are fewer and fewer children, and the answer of the west to this is migration, said Orbn in his annual state of the nation address last year. They want as many migrants to enter as there are missing kids, so that the numbers will add up. We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.

Newly nationalised IVF clinics will offer free treatment cycles for all women who want them (as long as they are under 40 and not lesbian), and Orbn recently promised to extend the lifetime exemption from income tax to include mothers with three children.

Most strikingly of all, various loans offer money upfront, based on a future promise to have children. One of these loans provides 10 million forint (25,400) to young married couples. Each time a child is born, payments are deferred. If the couple have three children within the requisite timeframe, the loan is written off. If they dont, they have to pay it back.

Bettina, a 32-year-old teaching assistant from the village of Mgocs, in southern Hungary, is planning to take out the baby-expecting loan in March. She and her husband, a policeman, already have one child and are planning another. The loan is brilliant. If it wasnt for this help then we would have to live with one of our parents, or in terrible conditions, she said.

The couple already have a 1.4 million forint loan, taken out soon after their marriage and contingent on having two children within a six-year timeframe. We are trying hard for another baby now but as the term approaches it does increase the pressure, she admitted.

Erika Simonics, the director of a kindergarten in Mgocs, said she thought the parents of around 90% of its attendees had taken out some kind of family support loan. Maybe some people were planning to have just one kid, but if there is the support available they will have another one. Its an incentive, she said.

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The kindergarten caters for four villages, including neighbouring Alsmocsold, which during the communist period had its own kindergarten and school. It has long closed, and now there is just an old-peoples home. Every year at Christmas we give the kids presents and its noticeable that the number now is so much less than it was in the nineties, said Lszl Dics, the long-standing mayor of Alsmocsold. In the countryside, the lack of young children is even more starkly felt, as the lower fertility rates are amplified by the migration of people to the cities and abroad.

Across Europe, governments have introduced benefits aimed at stimulating population growth. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party introduced the 500+ policy in 2016, under which mothers received 500 zoty (99) per child per month from the second child onwards. Last year it was expanded to include all children.

In Russia, a one-off payment of 5,800 to families with two or more children was launched in 2007. In January, Vladimir Putin announced a new package of demographic measures that will cost 400bn roubles (4.7bn) per year. Russias fate and its historic prospects depend on how many of us there are it depends on how many children are born in Russian families, said Putin when announcing the policy. Italy and Greece have also introduced baby bonuses for each child.

In the western half of Europe, fertility rates dropped gradually over several decades as more women entered the workforce and began to postpone having children. In the post-communist states, the change happened differently. There was a sudden drop in fertility after the collapse of communism, brought on not by the social changes but by economic misery and social collapse. At a time when the future was uncertain, childbearing was postponed and birthrates fell precipitously.

Over the next years, as the economies of the post-communist states recovered and grew, the same dynamics that had gradually changed the rates over many years in western Europe kicked in, meaning the rates did not recover.

There has been a change in mentality, maybe its a western influence. The young generation that is now 30, they have gone to university and want to start having children much later. This means they will have fewer children, said Simonics.

In central and eastern Europe, the falling birthrates have been exacerbated by large numbers of people moving westward in search of work, combined with minimal inward migration . In Hungary and other populist-led countries, the shrinking populations have been painted in apocalyptic terms of national survival.

A set of global population projections released by the UN in 2017 did little to allay fears. The study projected that the combined population of 10 eastern European countries would fall from 292 million then to 218 million in 2100, while during the same period the population of west Africa would grow from 372 million to 1.6 billion.

Europe has become the continent of the empty crib whereas in Asia and Africa they face demographic challenges of the opposite type, Katalin Novk, Hungarys minister of state for family, youth and international affairs, said at a conference on demography last year organised by the Hungarian government.

The conference in Budapest opened with a sand animation video of migrants rushing towards Europe, and was laced with references to the great replacement conspiracy theory, which suggests that shadowy forces want to replace so-called native Europeans with outsiders. There are political forces in Europe who want a replacement of population for ideological or other reasons, Orbn told the conference.

goston Mrz, who heads a pro-government thinktank in Budapest, said the pro-children policy was a response to a longstanding conservative fear of national extinction, as well as an ideological statement. Its anti-liberal, its a sign that we are not a multi-coloured country, we believe that while everyone is free to do what they want, there is a hierarchy, and a family made up of a husband and a wife is at the top, he said.

This focus on traditional families has become a cornerstone of the Orbn government. Rightwingers from across the world have travelled to Hungary to discuss and praise the countrys family policy. Hungarian family policy is worthy of close study, Tim Montgomerie, a former adviser to Boris Johnson, wrote on Twitter in December.

The social conservatism underlying such policies is evidenced by the fact that much of the support is available only to married couples. Non-married heterosexual couples and single women are also eligible for free IVF treatment, but not lesbians, meaning one half of a lesbian couple must pretend to be single and heterosexual if they wish to qualify.

In Poland, too, government messaging gives a populist twist to the 500+ policy. In Germany, billions of euros are spent on support for immigrants, but here these billions of zotys are spent on Polish families, said the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. This is a revolutionary socio-demographic project, and we are proud of it.

Yet despite all the investment, the jury is still out on whether these policies work. In Hungary, the fertility rate has risen from 1.23 to 1.48, though it is hard to gauge how much of that is down to specific policies. In Poland, a brief spike in births after the introduction of the 500+ policy was not sustained. You dont expect a breakthrough in two or three years, its going to take at least 10, said Zoltn Kovcs, Orbns spokesman.

The formula for raising birthrates is a slippery thing, with shelves of academic literature and statistical case studies devoted to the debate. Studies show that poorer families tend to have more children than richer families in any case, meaning that boosting birthrates is about more than financial security.

We regret we dont have good birth rate, but that only comes if we improve our economic life, Zoran Zaev, North Macedonias prime minister until earlier this year, told the Guardian in a recent interview. His social democratic government cut family support policies for larger families that had been introduced by the previous rightwing nationalist government.

There are good birthrates in countries where there is good social care and well-developed economies. These policies change nothing, it just means we spent a lot of money and told our citizens not to work and wait for money, he added.

Anne Gauthier, a professor of comparative family studies at the University of Groningen, said boosting fertility with government spending can work under very specific circumstances. She said the key was continuity of policies over many years, giving people the confidence that the support measures are here to stay. She pointed to France, which despite a recent drop still has one of the highest fertility rates in the EU, as a country that has had a generous and sustainable model.

One important element is ensuring that women are able to return to the workforce. More than 50% of Polish young women have university education and they want to work. The only way to boost birth rates is to make it easier to combine work and family, said Iga Magda, vice-president of the Institute for Structural Research in Warsaw.

Gauthier praised the Hungarian model for offering a package of different measures rather than simply handing out cash. But its very difficult to isolate specific reasons for changes in fertility, and researchers still dont know what effect particular family policies have on the birthrates.

In Scandinavia we thought they got it right, there was a very comprehensive package, focused on gender equality, that ticks all the boxes, and in the past year fertility is going down. So we are scratching our heads and trying to work out whats going on, she said.

There is a question of whether more targeted spending would be a better use of government resources. The Polish 500+ policy is not means-tested, nor are most of the Hungarian benefits. Indeed, some of the bigger loans actually benefit wealthier families, as they require proof of employment and minimum income levels.

The other problem with these policies is that a focus on numbers, with bonuses for each birth, can put statistics ahead of emotions. The upfront payments in the Hungarian system are of particular concern, putting pressure on women to have children they may no longer want. Couples who take out the loan and then get divorced have to pay back the whole amount within 120 days. According to the law, couples who find out they are infertile after taking out the loan are exempted from repayments, though in practice they can still face problems to get the money written off.

It increases dependencies, and if youre in a bad or abusive relationship you are even less free to leave it if youre bound together by these loans, said Dorottya Szikra, of the Centre for Social Sciences in Budapest.

Daniel Szalay, from Budapest, recounted how he and his wife had applied for the baby-expecting loan last July, when she was already more than seven months pregnant. She then lost the baby. The bank told the couple that as there was no child, they would not get the benefits, even though the law stipulates they should. Its so frustrating. After this trauma we suffered, the last thing we expected is to have to go through a never-ending process to prove something with which we have already complied, he said.

For governments who claim national survival is at stake, these individual traumas are a small price to pay for a potential boost in the birthrate. Funding fertility programmes allows populist governments to tick many boxes: to show they are taking care of families financially, reinforce their focus on traditional values and accentuate fears of replacement by migration from abroad if the native population continues to shrink.

A good state is where the people are not scared of the future and where the population is rising not due to migration from foreign countries, said the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babi, speaking at Orbns migration conference. I dont wish to scare anyone but we must discuss the issue that we are facing extinction.

This article was amended on 4 March 2020 because an earlier version said, in relation to the Hungarian system, that couples who take out a baby-expecting loan and then find out they are infertile are obliged to repay it. In fact the law is that such couples are exempted from repayments, provided they can prove they only found out about their inability to conceive after taking out the loan.

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