‘Demographic winter’: Pope Francis urges Italy’s government to help families

Pope Francis on Friday called for Italy's politicians to find solutions to reverse the plunging birthrate, saying young people struggle to start families in today's "savage" economic climate.

'Demographic winter': Pope Francis urges Italy’s government to help families
Pope Francis blesses a baby at the Vatican. Francis on Thursday urged Italy's politicians to do more to help young Italians who can't afford to start a family. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

he 86-year-old pontiff opened the second day of a Rome conference involving politicians, business and social leaders focused on the steeply declining birthrate in Italy – a figure that experts warn will lead to the impoverishment of the country.

For the first time, last year Italy’s births fell below the threshold of 400,000, at 393,000, according to national statistics institute Istat.

That compared to 713,499 deaths, in a population of around 58 million.

READ ALSO: The real reasons young Italians aren’t having kids

Francis, who received a standing ovation as he appeared onstage to address the conference alongside Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, said that young people today “live in a social climate in which starting a family is turning into a Titanic effort”.

He cited the difficulty of trying to plan for the future amid low salaries and high rents in Italy, where the population is ageing and where many young people struggle to find stable full-time jobs.

“The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities,” he said.

He acknowledged the “almost insurmountable constraints” on young women who are effectively forced to choose between a career and motherhood.

Given the high cost of raising children, people were revising their priorities, he added.

“We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realise their family dream and are forced to lower the bar, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, jealously guarding leisure time,” he said.

“We need to prepare fertile ground for a new spring to blossom and leave this demographic winter behind us,” Francis said, calling for “forward-looking policies” to avoid Italy “(degenerating) into sadness”.

“Reviving the birthrate means repairing the forms of social exclusion that are affecting young people and their future,” he added.

“Have you ever imagined a world without babies?” was the provocative question used in publicity for the conference, organised by the Birthrate Foundation, a group with links to Catholic associations that advocate for families.

Despite the religious ties, conference speakers mostly steered clear of some of controversial issues related to Italy’s declining population, such as abortion, surrogacy and migration.

Speakers concentrated primarily on discussing possible solutions including welfare, more childcare and tax relief.

Still, Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, a key figure in Meloni’s far-right, nationalist Brothers of Italy party, took the opportunity on Thursday to say that the birthrate issue was of concern “because we want to safeguard the culture, languages of Italy”

READ ALSO: 11 statistics that show the state of gender equality in Italy

Meloni, who won the largest share of the women’s vote in September elections but does not consider herself a feminist, has made mothers and families a central part of her discourse.

Her government has not however introduced any concrete policies aimed at addressing the issues faced by young people and families in Italy which experts say are closely tied to the plunging birth rate.

Italy’s population was on the rise until 2014, when it began reversing.

On Thursday, Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti warned that by 2042, Italy’s declining birthrate would end up reducing its gross domestic product (GDP) by 18 percent.

“I think that it should be strongly reiterated that the economic system is closely correlated to births,” Giorgetti said.

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Italy’s ruling party shrugs off youth wing’s Fascist salutes

Italian PM Giorgia Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party on Wednesday dismissed an undercover media investigation into the Fascist leanings of its youth wing.

Italy's ruling party shrugs off youth wing's Fascist salutes

“The journalistic report was built on the basis of fragmented, decontextualised images, taken in a private setting,” said Luca Ciriani, minister for relations with parliament and a member of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party.

The investigation published last week by Italian news website Fanpage included video of members of the National Youth, the junior wing of Brothers of Italy, which has post-fascist roots, in Rome.

In images secretly filmed by an undercover journalist, they are seen performing Fascist salutes, chanting the Nazi ‘Sieg Heil’ greeting and shouting ‘Duce’ in support of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

At one meeting, a youth party leader appears to explain how the movement plans to fraudulently pocket state funds.

“The national youth movement has never been reported for attacks on left-wing collectives, nor has it ever publicly displayed banners with extremist slogans or references to Fascism and Nazism,” Ciriani told parliament.

He brushed off a question from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) on whether the government would “intervene to prevent Fascist propaganda”, saying the footage doesn’t necessarily constitute a legal matter.

PD deputy Michela Di Biase said her party was “dramatically concerned” by the report.

READ ALSO: Outrage in Italy over stamp honouring Fascist founder of Rome football club

“The images that we all saw are an apology for Fascism in the full sense of the term. Girls and boys who are formed in the myth of those who have stained the history of our country with blood, persecution,” she said.

Asked about the report on Monday, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer did not mention Italy directly but condemned “Fascist symbolism”, saying “we do not believe it is appropriate, we condemn it, we think it is morally wrong”.

Although Italian law bans the apology for – or justification of – Mussolini’s Fascism, it is rarely enforced.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Italy’s laws against support for fascism?

Meloni was a teenage activist with the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of Mussolini after World War II.

The most right-wing leader to take office since 1945, she has sought to distance herself from her party’s legacy without entirely renouncing it.