"Between now and 2030, a loss of 21 million people of working age, or 7% of the workforce, will see Europe's potential growth decline from 2% today to 1.5% as soon as 2015 and to as little as 1.25% in 2040", Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla said in opening the conference. "We must pull out all the stops to react to this. Either we help out or we lose out." Mr Spidla highlighted the complexity of the problem by pointing out that there really is no magic bullet: "no single measure can serve as a solution".

Meanwhile another speaker, Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot, underscored the scope of the demographic challenge. Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland are among the large member states witnessing a real slowdown in birth rates, he said. Commission figures from March 2002 reveal that 33% of European families "didn't have the number of children they wanted", he added. While the ideal 'EU family' would have an average of 2.2 children, the real EU average is 1.5. "European families have one child less than they would really like to have", said Mr Barrot. "That is the heart of the matter".

A 1996 Commission study moreover revealed that "one out of two women in Europe felt she had to make a choice between work and having children", he added. The answer is not necessarily more funding, he suggested: "1.9% of the GDP in Ireland is spent on family planning, which has a 1.9% fertility rate per year, compared to 3% of GDP spent on family policy in Germany, which has a 1.3% annual fertility rate". He also underscored that more must be done to improve childcare facilities across Europe. "We should fund a pilot project for innovative acts in this area", he suggested. Taxes should be made more family-friendly, housing prices should be kept low and public transport should be made more accessible to children, he added.

David Blunkett, the UK Secretary for Work and Pensions, injected some humour into the proceedings. He launched into his commentary at the conference by citing what he believed was the timeliness of the event - until he had recently read about "skyrocketing birth rates in France". Mr Blunkett said he could only chalk this up to "the extremely good food, wonderful wine and amorous nature of the French", adding that "we in Britain have got to emulate this, preferably as part of the European social model". He said one of the most challenging tasks facing European governments and societies today was removing people's fear...

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