The demographic problem has been one of the main challenges facing the European Union for some years now. At the beginning of 2020, the European Commission recognised for the first time the challenge of depopulation, pointing out certain countries or regions suffering from this challenge, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria or eastern Germany. This issue has strong consequences for the European Union as a whole, and should therefore be a key point on the Brussels agenda.
As Yannis Virvilis, spokesperson for the European Commission Representation in Spain, explained, "this phenomenon can further aggravate the economic decline that regions are already facing and thus widen the gap between rich and poor regions in Europe. Demography may therefore affect the social, economic and territorial cohesion of the EU". Furthermore, a high concentration of population in cities accentuates the current climate crisis, another relevant challenge for Brussels
With the aim of proposing solutions to this European difficulty, the Instituto Complutense de Ciencia de la Administración (ICCA) has organised a conference on the demographic challenge in an empty Europe. This event is part of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a platform that seeks to promote citizen participation in central issues of the continent.
Teachers, politicians, journalists and experts addressed the demographic issue and encouraged students to get involved in this problem which, as several speakers pointed out, "affects us all". Moreover, young people are of great relevance within the Future of Europe Conference.
Paloma González del Miño, Director of the Department of International Relations at UCM and a member of the ICCA, began the talks on European demography, relating this aspect to the economy and social cohesion. She also warned that anti-European movements are more likely to spread in areas where there are fewer people. Gema Pastor Albadalejo, Director of the ICCA, reiterated the words of her colleague, stating that "this challenge is important and affects the quality of democracy".
The ICCA director added that solving this problem will avoid territorial bias and discrimination based on geography. Moreover, an improvement in public services in the most depopulated areas will curb the feeling of abandonment by European institutions.
Javier Fernández Arribas, journalist and director of Atalayar, also participated in this event as moderator. "The future of Europe is your future, the future of all of us", he said. Fernández Arribas stressed the relevance of the European Union for all citizens of the member states. "More than 70% of the laws that affect us all come from Brussels," he said. He also called for a United States of Europe, an idea that is very common among the most pro-European sectors of the continent. "Instead of ceding sovereignty, it is a question of sharing sovereignty", he explained.
He then passed the floor to María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, a Member of the European Parliament. She is also Vice-Chair of the Women's Committee and a member of the Agriculture Committee. She reaffirmed the statements made by Ms Fernández Arribas, pointing out the importance and influence of the European Union on the citizens of the continent. She said that the Spanish population "should be more involved" in the European project. "Spain is the fourth largest economy in the European Union, it has a very important weight in decision-making, but citizens still see the Parliament as a very distant place," she said. "Spanish citizens should be more involved, more aware of the institutions", she added.
However, after his speech, the students showed great interest in the issue and in the European Union. Rodríguez Palop answered the many questions from the students, which shows the great involvement of young people in the demographic issue. Among the students' proposals was the idea of transferring some institutions to other European countries. Although this deployment, as the MEP explained, would have climatic effects. In this respect, Juan González, another participant and head of press for the European Commission Representation in Spain, pointed out that the European presence in the country is strong. González gave as examples the Joint Research Centre in Seville and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in Bilbao.
In response to another question, the idea that services were more necessary in the most depopulated areas than the infrastructures themselves was also debated. "It is not a question of building more roads, but of providing quality services. They are thinking of extending the Prat airport while there is no railway line in Extremadura", said Rodríguez Palop. Fernández Arribas also stressed the importance of a good internet connection in depopulated areas, a fact that was reaffirmed during the confinements.
Young people are also aware of the anti-European movements that are sweeping the continent and taking advantage of regions with smaller populations. "With the new IPAC I hope that this will be alleviated because otherwise there will be social fragmentation," warns Rodríguez Palop. The outermost regions, such as the Canary Islands, are also suffering from the migratory crisis with hardly any help. These regions with "fewer services and less capacity to manage problems that belong to everyone", she said.
International students from France and Ecuador also took part in the debate on the demographic challenge, showing once again the interest of young people in this particular issue and in the European project in general.
Gender inequality in the rural world was also addressed and the problem of depopulation was discussed from a cultural perspective.
The second part of the event focused more on depopulation at national level. Juana López, director general of policies against depopulation in the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge; José Bayón, delegate council of ENISA; and Raquel Clemente, vice-president of the Demographic Depopulation Commission and mayoress of Celadas (Teruel), addressed the problems of depopulation in Spain and presented several proposals to find solutions. As in the previous panel, the students showed a high level of participation through questions and debates.