VISEGRAD BLOG: Returning migrants but no COVID baby boom for emerging Europe

VISEGRAD BLOG: Returning migrants but no COVID baby boom for emerging Europe
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow June 23, 2020

When populations across Europe were sent into lockdown during March in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic across the continent, there was lighthearted speculation that the unprecedented spell of time indoors could lead to a baby boom in nine months' time – though not, of course for the couples that lived apart and wouldn’t see each other for the duration. 

This would have been good news for emerging Europe, which faces a long-term demographic decline, with six countries from the region – Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Moldova and Poland – forecast to lose more than 40% of their populations by the end of the century, through a combination of low birth rates and mass emigration to countries with better economic opportunities. 

But couples cooped up inside together are only a small part of the story, and a study by academics from two Italian universities, Francesca Luppi, Bruno Arpino and Alessandro Rosina, reveals that populations under the coronavirus lockdown are more likely to postpone fertility plans than start making babies. 

Specifically, they find that the “effect of the pandemic on fertility intentions is negative across Europe. Such consequences only exacerbate the effects of the Great Recession, as both crises have affected the fertility plans of the same generation.”

“At the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic there were hypotheses about whether the lockdown would result in a new ‘baby boom’. However, one of the consequences of this particular health emergency has been one of the most severe economic crises of the last century, with such events always being followed by a decline in fertility rates. So it is not surprising that the first empirical evidence available does not support the possibility of a lockdown baby boom,” says a summary of the research published on the LSE’s EUROPP European Politics and Policy blog

While the impact of health and economic crises on fertility plans differs across countries, “it is always strong and negative,” it adds. 

The study is based on the analysis of data from a survey of 18 to 34-year-olds carried out in the last week of March and the first week of April in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. 

It found that of the respondents planning to have a child back in January, an overwhelming majority had decided to either postpone or abandon their plans altogether. There were slightly higher percentages of people still planning to have a child in France and Germany (32.03% and 30.71% respectively) than in Italy (25.56%), Spain (21.17%) and the UK (23.04%), with the latter three countries worse hit by the pandemic. In Italy, which at the time the survey began had by far the world's largest COVID-19 death toll, as many as 36.51% of respondents said they were abandoning their plans. 

While the study uses samples from five West European countries, and not any from emerging Europe, the response of young people planning families from those five countries gives hints as to how the situation may evolve further east too. 

We don’t yet have similar data to work with from the eastern part of the continent, though a survey by carried out early during the lockdown period found that only 6% of people said they were having more sex. It also quoted the Pink Elephant Sex shop as saying sales of vibrators, lingerie and adult board games had increased.

Meanwhile, data from Latvia’s Central Statistical Bureau (CSB) shows that just 465 marriages were registered in the Baltic state this May, around half as many as in May 2019. Obviously big weddings are out for now, but this is a further sign that people are putting off major life events during the crisis.

The policy response to the pandemic has been remarkably similar across the world – with notable exceptions like Turkmenistan, which continues to deny it has any cases at all – and a number of countries from Central and Southeast Europe adopted the same kinds of strict lockdowns as those in Italy and Spain. It’s reasonable to assume that behaviour under lockdown was similar to some extent. 

However, the number of coronavirus infections and deaths have been lower in most Central and Southeast European countries (with notable exceptions such as Russia) than in Western Europe, perhaps giving more room for optimism about the future. 

The report also showed significant differences between the five countries surveyed, which are also illuminating. “The huge proportion of people postponing or abandoning their fertility plans at least for 2020 – and in some cases indefinitely – seems to be driven by country-specific factors, which can exacerbate or reduce the negative effect of the economic crisis,” it pointed out. 

“[C]ountries in which young people are now more prone to abandon their fertility plans are the ones where fertility was already very low (i.e. Italy and Spain), compared to the countries where fertility was much higher, and fertility plans today seem to be more protected. In the latter case, a higher proportion of people are still planning to have a child this year or they are postponing instead of abandoning their fertility plans. This suggests that the same drivers of previous fertility trends may explain the different impact of the pandemic on current intentions.”

The authors attribute part of the difference between countries to the experience of the Great Recession, as some in Italy and Spain are still suffering from the aftermath of the last crisis and their youth unemployment rates are among the highest in Europe.

Most of Central and Southeast Europe rebounded strongly from the crisis during the 2000s, and towards the end of the decade the Visegrad 4 states in particular were enjoying a consumption-led boom fuelled by rising wages in a tightening labour market. Youth unemployment is, however, very high in the Western Balkans countries, which are economically far behind their peers to the north. 

“Another factor is related to women in the labour market,” say the report’s authors. “The countries in our sample that now suffer the greatest losses in terms of fertility intentions are also those with the lowest female employment rates in Europe, as well as the lowest proportion of infants enrolled in childcare services. It is well-grounded in the literature that women’s employment is positively related to fertility. And the availability (and affordability) of childcare services is one of the drivers of the female presence in the labour market.”

They point out that in Italy and Spain working parents compensate for the lack of adequate public childcare services by relying on grandparents. “[T]his option is nevertheless no longer available due to the restrictions of the lockdowns. If we consider that the lockdown experience might have exacerbated the traditional division of gender roles, the negative returns on fertility can be expected especially in countries where the gap in the amount of paid and unpaid work done by women and men was high in the pre-crisis period, such as in Italy and Spain.”

Eurostat data on the employment and gender pay gaps across the European Union don’t reveal any particular divide between the “old” EU member states and the newer states from Central and Southeast Europe that joined from 2004 onwards. 

The gender gap, defined as the difference between the employment rates of men and women of working age (20-64), was 11.8 pp across the EU-27 in 2018, and it varied significantly across member states. The lowest gaps were reported in four Baltic and Scandinavian states: Lithuania (2.3 pp), Finland (3.7 pp), Latvia and Sweden (both 4.2pp). 

On the other hand, three countries from Central and Southeast Europe – Czechia (15.2 pp), Hungary (15.3 pp) and Romania (18.3 pp) – had some of the largest gender gaps in the EU, but not as big as southern European states Italy (19.8 pp), Greece (21.0 pp), Malta (21.9 pp) or EU candidate country North Macedonia. This is due to the lower participation of women in the labour markets in these countries, Eurostat said. 

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap – the difference between the average gross hourly earnings of men and women expressed as a percentage of average gross hourly earnings of men – is highest in Estonia at 22.7% but lowest in Romania at 3.0%. There were more Central and Southeast European states among the EU members with both the highest and with the lowest gender pay gaps. 

While there most likely will be no baby boom as a result of the lockdowns, what we have seen on a very large scale is the return of migrants both from within the region and further afield, mostly western Europe. The pandemic has thus achieved what governments across the region have been trying and largely failing to do for years – bring home their migrants. 

In CEE in particular labour markets became very tight in the last few years – to the extent that countries such as Poland were having to bring people in from Ukraine to fill vacancies. Governments have been trying to persuade people to come back, and several initiatives were launched to achieve this, not just to swell the labour force, but to bring back hard-working young people with useful skills and understanding of new working practices, new languages and so on. 

Their return during the pandemic came at a cost, as many of the early cases in emerging Europe are believed to have originated from people who returned from northern Italy, seeding the virus in multiple places in their home countries. 

The question now is how long will they stay? It’s early days yet, as travel restrictions are only now being relaxed, and there are concerns about a second wave later this year. Borders are only just starting to reopen. Moreover, many jobs in sectors such as tourism are likely to be lost as well as others as countries were plunged into a deep recession by the pandemic. 

For now, companies in some countries are looking to fill vacancies created by the absence of seasonal workers from abroad with local people left jobless by the crisis. Croatia, for example, relies on imported labour in particular from neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina for the tourism and construction sectors, and employers have been constantly pushing for increases in foreign worker quotas. This year there will be fewer jobs, and employers are looking to local workers to fill them. 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on June 22 that the government should present 100 new projects in the construction sector to employ Armenians who would normally be working in other Eurasian Economic Union countries. "Our main plan is to try to create jobs for our citizens in Armenia so that they will have a chance to work here, rather than outside Armenia," Pashinian said as quoted by Armenpress. 

However, even at the height of the pandemic in Europe employers in some West European countries were desperately trying to find ways to bring back their seasonal workers. 150 Romanians were flown to the UK on a chartered plan to pick strawberries in April, as farmers didn’t find local workers with the skills or inclination to do the work. Germany is another country where there were fears crops would rot in the fields without seasonal workers from countries like Romania and Bulgaria. On June 11, the German government relaxed entry restrictions for seasonal farm workers from EU countries that it had imposed during the crisis. 

The pandemic temporarily reversed the flow of migration and brought workers back home. But as economists from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) pointed out back in March, economic contractions brought on by health crises tend to be shorter-lived and followed by a stronger rebound than those caused by financial crises. It may take some time for economies to bounce back post pandemic – and will depend on how long it takes to find a vaccine – but when they do, the factors drawing workers away from emerging Europe to other countries will most likely be restored.