When it comes to debating declining birth rates, it seems like everyone is a winner—no matter your political allegiances. When the National Center for Health Statistics revealed in May that U.S. birth rates hit a historic low of 1.76 births per woman, social conservatives took it as a cue to rail against abortion and a decline in family values. For liberals, it bolstered their arguments in favor of more immigration to fill the labor gaps.
But occasionally the debate can tip into uncomfortable racial territory, as it did last year when Iowa Congressman Steve King tweeted that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The comment caused outcry, but in Europe—which collectively has one of the lowest birth rates in the world—nationalists have discovered rich political opportunity in the continent’s baby shortage, and some of the rhetoric is worryingly reminiscent of the eugenics programs that haunt Europe’s past.
In Germany last year, an election poster for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland showed a pregnant white woman reclining below the caption: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves,” reminding many of Nazi-era propaganda. Geert Wilders, an opposition politician in The Netherlands, speaks of being “wiped away, our population replaced and our culture annihilated.” Valeri Simeonov, a Bulgarian politician who has called the Roma minority “ferocious anthropoids” whose women had the “instincts of stray bitches,” has been put in charge of the country’s demographic polices.
The fact that nationalists and the far right appear to have hijacked the issue is particularly worrying to experts, who say the demographic decline is an issue that should concern everyone.
“This is a real pity,” says Alejandro Macarron Larumbe, author of Demographic Suicide in the West and Half the World. “If only parties from the extreme of the political spectrum talk about this, we will hardly improve in this major issue.”
The average birth rate in the European Union is 1.6, well below the 2.1 live births per woman needed to sustain a population, and the global average of 2.4. Coupled with aging societies, consequences include villages with only a handful of people left; no staff to care for the elderly; a dwindling labor force to sustain economic growth.
There are good reasons governments have struggled to find a solution. Firstly, the decline is down to positive social developments, starting from improved infant mortality and the end of child labor. People no longer need an army of children to ensure some survive to work the land. More recently, opportunities for migration, universal access to contraception, the increase of women in higher education and greater female participation in the labor force have led many to delay starting their families.
And while welcoming more immigrants into societies with declining birth rates and aging populations is perhaps the most logical solution to plug any gaps in the labor market, it has become such a toxic issue on both sides of the Atlantic that few politicians openly advocate such a policy.
“That whole issue is affected by lots of other emotional, cultural, and historical arguments, and common sense gets thrown out with the baby and the bath water,” says Dr George Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Aging.
Initiatives to address the decline can also have uncomfortable echoes of the past: white women in Nazi Germany were encouraged to breed to create the master race. In Romania in the 1960s, the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu launched a plan to boost the population by seven million, resulting in the deaths of around 10,000 women in illegal abortions.
“Fertility in the majority of countries was always something where governments said this is an individual choice—this is not something which governments will interfere in,” says Leeson.
The only way governments seem able to openly address the issue is with slightly smutty campaigns launched with a knowing wink: Denmark has urged its citizens to a “Do it for Denmark” and have more sex on vacations; Poland produced a video calling on its citizens “to breed like rabbits.”
“European leaders don’t talk about it openly and seriously and I think it is a problem,” Katalin Novak, Hungary’s Minister of State for Family and Youth, tells TIME.
Few European leaders have embraced the issue with the zeal of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a nationalist who has governed since 2010 and was reelected this year. Orban’s speeches about demographics are usually accompanied by a robust defense of “Christian” values and a rant against immigration, and he was recently labeled a “racist” by U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein for a speech in which he said: “we do not want our own color…mixed with those of others.” With birth rates languishing at 1.5 births per woman, Orban has offered a bulwark against migration and the “mixed cultures” he frequently rallies against: Have more Hungarian babies.
His government is offering a package of incentives that would make aspiring parents tear up around the world: up to five free IVF cycles for couples having trouble conceiving; three years parental leave; housing subsidies per child running up to tens of thousands of euros; subsidized childcare. The aim is to get to the 2.1 replacement level by 2030, and Novak says their policies have already boosted the birth rate from 1.3 in 2011 to 1.5 today.
If they succeed, they will be the first country in the E.U. to do so. Financial incentives have failed to sustainably increase birth rates anywhere in Europe, says Andrew Cartwright, a research fellow in development studies at the Central European University in Budapest. “The forces that shape fertility and population size are not that easy to influence,” he says. Countries with stronger rates are generally ones like Sweden (1.85) and Denmark (1.79) where economic and social support for working parents has been embedded in the culture over a long period.
Hope and optimism for a prosperous future, it seems, is a better motivator than resurrecting the fears of the past.