Demographic winter has been a growing source of concern in the Old Continent over the past decade, and the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent economic and social crisis may be an aggravating factor likely to make the whole continent’s future even more uncertain.
In considering how to address this crisis, it is more crucial than ever to reaffirm the value of the institution of family and its central role at every level of society as the most fundamental resource to ensure sustainability in Europe, according to Vincenzo Bassi, the president of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE).
The FAFCE is a Brussels-based umbrella organization of Catholic family associations, present in 21 countries of the European Union (EU). Its aim is to make the voices of countless European families heard at the highest level.
While discussing with the Register the main challenges facing these families in the light of the ongoing health crisis, Bassi argues that pro-family policies are absolutely necessary to effectively sort out the economic situation of the whole continent for the coming years. Noting that the 2020 International Day of Families on May 15 was focused on the importance of investing in social policies to protect vulnerable families, he stressed that European families are not sick people to be healed but an antidote to the deep crisis that has been taking shape in Europe in recent years.
How is your organization going to deal with the post-COVID-19 economic and social crisis that will likely have a profound effect on families in Europe?
Each country will have its own policy, but at the overall European level, we must be very careful to ensure that expenses in favor of families are considered investments and not part of the deficit. Today, because of the pandemic, the rules of the Maastricht Treaty [which led to the creation of the EU] regarding budgetary stringency and their compulsory nature have been suspended, so it looks like nothing prevents the EU states from supporting families by creating debt. Our federation is a European organization so it must focus on that, to ensure that accounting parameters don’t brake activities that favor families. It is our field of competence and action.
One of the main limits that we have today — not only in Italy, but also in the whole continent — is that support to families is considered something different than support for jobs creation and individuals to work, which is a misconception of society. We must try to convince the policy-makers that if a housewife or a family man doesn’t have a proper job, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be considered workers. On the contrary: Through their full-time commitment to the development of their family, they are helping the whole society, as they keep it united. So, ultimately, helping family means helping work and development.
We will commit ourselves together with our national members to induce the European decision-makers to consider policies of economic support for families as a way of supporting jobs, as well. What I’ve just explained is not automatic. On the contrary, it is never considered by the rulers. Workers are all seen as individuals, and their parental responsibilities are not taken into account. This approach damages large families who, more than others, ensure the future of our communities and keep them united.
Then policies for workers mustn’t be policies that replace the income but must be policies that aim at resolving their concrete needs. If these workers also have family responsibilities, these policies supporting workers must take these responsibilities into account.
The competence of the European Union is something mainly economic and then social. Today, many rulers say they want to support work and then they can spend all the money they want. The European Commission has just created a plan to support workers hit by the coronavirus crisis. But we would like the commission to understand that giving money away is not enough. If one wants to be fair, one must consider family responsibilities. Such a consideration would also avoid single people being in an unjustly favorable situation compared to those who assumed responsibilities in favor of the common good by starting a family.
What are the specific emergencies affecting families that should be addressed in the wake of the pandemic?
Among the things that frighten parents the most in Europe currently, there is the fact that they will have to go back to work without knowing where to leave their children, since they can’t attend school yet. Some government authorities are content to say that online courses should be open, without knowing parents’ needs, without involving them in the reflection. It creates a lot of insecurity.
We’ve always spoken about a conciliation between work and family; and this would be the right moment to make it effective. But this is not what we’re doing, since the European governments don’t have an integrated approach. For example, the minister of public instruction should not act autonomously with respect to the minister of economy or that of economic development, for instance. Yet each of them reflects and acts on his own. There is no common goal to be pursued. This is the first important aspect to be addressed.
The second one is to be able to safeguard parental responsibility while facing the crisis that will certainly emerge. Indeed, if these policies to fight poverty are being maintained as they are, that is, if they consider individuals without their social dimensions, the risk to see European families become poorer and poorer, to make it more and more dangerous to set up families, is strong. Let’s not forget that generativity, the simple incapacity to generate children, is one of the main causes of poverty in Europe, together with the loss of a job.
Will the post-COVID-19 crisis make this European demographic winter worse, according to you?
If we continue to consider the family as a private fact and not an institution operating in the public interest, which also plays a productive economic role, we will never understand how to resolve this question. If the European Union’s priority is to maintain some parameters, such as those which control the deficit, inflation and public debt, then a demographic winter will further increase these crisis factors. So, in a nutshell, a deficit in births will generate the collapse of the European Union itself; because without children, without a working active population, there will surely be an increase of public debt, deficit and inflation, the very things that Maastricht’s rules try to avoid. If we have fewer children, we won’t have enough resources in the future, and the functioning of the EU will have to be financed by public debt.
Therefore, the protection of family is a sine qua non for the survival of the EU. That is why family policies are economic policies, before being social policies: because their goal is to give a country a structure of human capital.
The core issue goes beyond any problem of identity. It is a matter of sustainability and survival. The enemy of sustainability is not the conception of children but consumerism, like Pope Francis wrote very clearly in Laudato Si. Intergenerational balance is the only solution for the maintaining of a community, including a big community such as that of the EU. We are thus striving to promote this conception of intergenerational balance within Europe. Our goal is to convince the European decision-makers that the family is not a disease but the cure to our disease: that is, the threat of a demographic winter and a worse economic crisis.
What are the tools at your disposal to promote the changes you advocate to ensure a better future for European societies?
Our federation interacts a lot with political institutions and with big stakeholders because the family is of interest to entrepreneurs, bankers — really, everyone. In January, for instance, we organized, in partnership with other institutions, a breakfast at the European Parliament to discuss small family enterprises. It was very interesting because there were people from very different social backgrounds that said the exact same thing: The family is an essential resource and not a burden.
We are the only international organization focused on the family which holds a participatory status with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the institution based on the European Convention on Human Rights: This gives us a great responsibility in order to promote the family in relation to its identity and to fight in favor of children’s right to have a father and a mother. We are also taking actions against poverty, trying to raise awareness on this issue in relation to generativity. We are not so much fighting to conquer new rights, but we, rather, try to eliminate barriers such as fiscal policies which discriminate against the family in European countries. And to this extent, the Council of Europe is a very good vehicle to encourage countries to make efforts, in this sense.
Then we are trying to actively promote family associations, as we believe it is the best instrument to “grow in the awareness of being ‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society,” as prophetically stated by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (44). He warned that without such awareness of their value, families would be the “first victims of the evils that [governments] have done no more than note with indifference.”
Family associations help reduce divorces, and they are a very good tool for promoting a Christian apostolate, because Catholic family associations are able to evangelize through their interaction with non-Catholic families. In fact, the beauty of Catholic families is contagious. It is also a great ecumenical instrument, which is more efficient than that of the Church hierarchies who don’t interact among families as easily. Families pray together. We have a lot of experiences that attest to that. We have good contacts with Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, for instance, and Orthodox and Catholic families speak a lot and pray together. Family associations are, in this sense, a great help, as they’re factors of unity.
What were the greatest shortcomings of the EU with regard to family during this crisis, according to you?
There is little awareness of the community. The greatest problem is that politicians don’t enter families’ homes. They speak from an abstract and formal point of view, they speak with trade unions, but they are not in direct contact with families. They don’t understand their everyday issues.
A minister of public instruction won’t try to see how families deal with education during lockdown. Some ministers are not even aware that some families cannot afford to have internet with fiber optics, which ensures a more efficient and stable online connection.
Likewise, governments take care of the poor in a very abstract manner, treating poverty as an academic problem to solve rather than looking at concrete circumstances which may cause some people to become poor in the future. For example, two workers with the same income but different family responsibilities — one with many children and the other with few — can be more or less poor based on those circumstances.
This lack of concreteness, which doesn’t take people’s needs into consideration, this way of seeing the world according to categories of the past, is perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the EU. Family is not something abstract, and each family has its own balance and organization. But they all have a common denominator: They exist to take care of their members; they are based on the reciprocity of marriage, on openness to life and on generativity.
Besides the harmful impact of the health crisis we’re going through in our societies, do you think there could be positive change and new opportunities emerging from the crisis?
There can also be many great opportunities, indeed. I see, from an economic point of view, a greater attention to human service and a greater consideration for national resources. For instance, we must tend to draw more deeply on our own resources to figure out how we should act. I believe that, looking at families’ needs, European culture, which is strongly creative, hides a few surprises up its sleeves. Many people will act according to a more sustainable criterion.
Governments have shown their incapacity to deal with these issues. So we will have to find new ways to take our responsibilities, starting in our communities. We have the resources: For example, we do not need additional taxation; rather, the savings of families could be directly invested to improve the well-being of families themselves according to the subsidiary principle. It will then be turned into a better opportunity for human capital and better economic development.
We have the responsibility to creatively find a way to direct the savings of families toward the common good without destroying their savings. This is the future. So it shouldn’t be used in favor of industrial investments or financial sector, but it should be used in an efficient way to better manage the family welfare, with a view of universality and solidarity.
How can your voice be heard in the tumult of the crisis?
Our federation is very determined and active. I am convinced that we will make it, also by building new alliances. I believe that today, especially after what we’ve been through, those who have concrete ideas are going to be listened to and engaged, more than in the past.
From what I’ve been experiencing during this COVID-19 crisis, I think that now, more than ever, it is easier to talk about families, even within secularized institutions like those of the EU, because people feel less judged by Catholics, notably thanks to Pope Francis.
Today, we can speak about family focusing on the common good. We must be concrete, and thus, we can reach more people of goodwill. FAFCE was recently able to speak with many representatives of the European Commission, which is a pretty new experience. I can feel that some in the commission are no longer ashamed to talk to us, as was sometimes the case in the past.
At the end, as we stated during our board meeting on May 6, this crisis has made clear under the eyes of all that the family is the first cell of the social fabric: When the community was reduced to its first core, it was within the family that every person could find the most reliable and solid support. In this sense, this is an historical occasion to convince everyone to return to reality … even the bureaucrats of Brussels.
I wish that this vision of family — as a resource which takes care of our countries, and not as a subject to be taken care of — will be shared not only within Europe but in the whole world, including in the U.S. Family is not the disease but the cure for the disease.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Europe correspondent.