Director's column  

Luc Soete

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Director's column
Archived columns by former UNU-MERIT director Luc Soete.

Spring in Limburg: A tale of carnival and shrinkage

This year even the traditional carnival festivities in the South of Limburg in The Netherlands were marked by population decline. In Kerkrade-West, the local carnival prince Marc I reigned as the first prince of the 53rd Vasteloavends Verain Kirchroa West (VVKW) even though his home was in the centre of the other carnival conscription of the Kirchröätsjer Vasteloavends Verain. 

For the Limburg carnival aficionados among you, the VVKW contains the carnival conscription of the parishes of Gracht, Spekholzerheide, Heilust, Terwinselen and Kaalheide. In the old days, having a prince living in a different parish would have been considered a real scandal. But luckily for Marc, no one blamed him. Especially on Monday and Tuesday night when the carnival tourists went back to Holland and the locals, the real native Limburg carnival goers, could really tell how quiet carnival was this year.

Soon carnival will just be for old age Limburg pensioners who’ll be able to dance and move around at ease with walking sticks in pubs and squares, while not worrying about the decibels coming out of the juke boxes, most of them being deaf! In short, we’ll have to get used to the effects of population decline and population shrinkage on carnival.

Today we are inundated with reports on the demographic contraction of Limburg, and South Limburg in particular. So, first let me review some facts. Known facts: such as the finding that of all Dutch provinces Limburg has the lowest percentage of young people and also one of the lowest birth rates. Last year (2010) there were in Limburg 9,533 newborns, compared to 11,190 in 2003.

Now, some lesser known facts. Of all Belgian provinces, the birth rate rose the most in… yes, Limburg – in this case Belgian Limburg. Between 1991-2003, the birth rate fell by 20 per cent to 7,638 newborns, but since then has increased dramatically. Last year (2010) there were 8,965 newborns in Belgian Limburg, almost the same as in Dutch Limburg. So, on one side of Limburg, the Belgian side, citizens have a fertility of 1.07 new Limburgers for every thousand citizens, while on the Dutch side it is about 0.85. A huge difference! How can this be explained?

First of all there is of course a noticeable gap in child pay allowances between the two Limburgs. Belgium offers 85 euros per month for a first child, 157 euros for a second child, and 235 euros for a third (and each subsequent) child until the age of five. It therefore pays to have more children. Furthermore Belgium also gives a maternity allowance: 1,153 euro for the first child, 867 euros for the second (and each subsequent) child.

By contrast, in Dutch Limburg, child allowances are limited to a fixed amount per child since 1995, so there is actually no financial incentive to have a large family. Each child under five gets 65 euros per month, whether a family has one or four. Result: a family with four young children in Belgian Limburg receives 712 euros per month, in Dutch Limburg only 260 euros per month.  

Dutch Limburg differs in another way: it has a very low percentage of so-called 'non-Western' immigrants. As in the rest of the Netherlands the population of Limburg is made up of around 20 per cent of foreigners, but unlike the rest of the country less than 5 per cent are so-called non-Western immigrants. Dutch Limburg is actually marked by “mass immigration” of primarily Western immigrants: Germans and Belgians. And with respect to the Belgian immigrants, these appear to consist of women, particularly older women. Among the Belgian immigrants in the Netherlands over the age of 65, around 70 per cent are female.

In short, Limburg is shrinking because children are too expensive and because there are too few non-Western, young male immigrants. The conclusion of all this is rather straightforward: if one does want to stop the population decline in Heilust and Kerkrade-West, why not open the doors to some of the thousands of North African boat refugees in Lampedusa?  Let’s build a mosque in Kerkrade-West so that next year we can celebrate Prince Mohamed I as the 54th VVKW prince. And who knows, in a few years' time Limburg’s population decline might just be a nightmare from the past.

Luc Soete
Originally published in Dutch in the 'Dagblad de Limburger’ newspaper,
12 March 2011


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