DAWN - Features; April 28, 2006

Published Apr 28, 2006 12:00am

Germany headed for population disaster?

By Noah Barkin


BERNBURG: Helmut Rieche, the proud mayor of this struggling east German town, likes to focus on the positive when describing the changes that have occurred here since the collapse of communism.

The old state-run cement company that polluted the river and turned the town grey with fumes has been closed down, he says. And the elderly of Bernburg, who Rieche says seemed hidden from view under the communists, are out on the streets again.

“We have about 250 citizens that are over 90 years old. The people are living longer and that is a sign that they are prospering here,” says Rieche, a grizzled 63-year-old who took over as mayor a year after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

But Bernburg, a town of 32,000 that lies 200 km southwest of Berlin, also has a darker side.

It came in last out of 439 German towns, cities and districts in a recent survey of demographic trends by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.

Dozens of schools in and around town have been closed in recent years as birth rates dropped. Even Rieche concedes that with an unemployment rate of 20 per cent, many of the youths that do grow up here will eventually leave to find work.

Citizens over the age of 65 make up nearly a quarter of the population, up from 14 per cent in 1990. Only one in 10 Bernburgers is aged 15 or below, half the ratio of 16 years ago.

Bernburg is a microcosm of the nation. Germans are living longer, having fewer children and, according to demographic experts, heading for economic decline and a pension crisis.

“No one knows how the ageing population will change society, but what is certain is that a very old Germany, within an ageing Europe, will be at a competitive disadvantage internationally,” says Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute.

Fewer children were born in Germany in 2005 than in any year since World War Two, government data released last month showed.

With fewer than 1.4 babies per woman, Germany ranks near the very bottom of the 25-nation European Union and, according to the Berlin Institute, the country now has the lowest birth rate in the world relative to its overall population.

At the same time Germans, like their counterparts in other developed nations, are living longer. By 2035, the share of people aged 65 and over is projected to swell to 30 per cent of the total population from around 18 per cent now.

That trend is not new — Germany’s overall population has been getting older since the 1920s.

But the stark figures have laid bare a creeping problem for German society and sparked national soul-searching over the “me first” values that some say are dissuading Germans from having children and creating a country of selfish loners.

“Minimum”, a book which warns of a looming societal crisis where families are the exception and self-centred only-children grow up to have even fewer kids themselves, has been at the top of best-seller lists for weeks.

“The atomisation of our society is not even close to reaching its limits,” the book’s author Frank Schirrmacher said in a recent magazine interview. “We are in the midst of a demographic transition with crisis-laden effects that we haven’t even begun to feel.”

Alarm bells are ringing in Berlin, where policymakers are scrambling for ways to encourage Germans to have more children.

Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, herself the mother of seven children, has vowed to introduce legislation that would make it easier for women to juggle careers and kids — for example by making kindergartens free and extending school hours.

Most German schools shut in the early afternoon and childcare is rudimentary compared to other European countries like France, which boasts a substantially higher birth rate.

Boosting the birth rate may also require a wholesale change in German attitudes toward child-rearing.

German women who continue to work after having children are disparaged as “raven mothers” for leaving their children alone in a “cold nest”. Those seeking a return to the workforce after time off to raise their family complain of bias.

The stakes are high. In the future, far more older Germans will need to be supported by a shrinking number of workers. Immigration could ease the pressure, but not by much if it continues at current intake rates of 100,000 per year.

Already, German public pension outlays represent 12 pc of gross domestic product — near the top of the European Union.—Reuters

Two years out of Israeli jail, Vanunu’s life on hold

By Dan Williams


AL QUDS: He served out his prison term two years ago and is widely reviled by fellow Israelis as a traitor, but nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu stands little chance of starting a new life abroad any time soon.

Citing security concerns, Israel’s Justice Ministry this month renewed its ban on travel by Vanunu, a former technician at the Dimona atomic reactor who all but blew away the country’s cherished nuclear secrecy with a 1986 newspaper interview.

The ban is subject to annual review. Senior Israeli security sources said they expected it to be extended indefinitely.

Israeli officials accuse Vanunu, a 51-year-old Jewish convert to Christianity who has repudiated the Jewish state, of having more military secrets to spill.

He denies it, but has won few friends in Israel by pursuing a strident campaign to expose Dimona.

“Vanunu’s behaviour both vexes and perplexes the security establishment,” said Michael Karpin, author of “The Bomb in the Basement”, a study of Israel’s nuclear capability. “Their thinking is: ‘Why should we let him go and hope for the best?’”

Keen to deter foes but eager to avoid an arms race, Israel neither confirms nor denies having the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal under a policy of “strategic ambiguity”.

The monopoly has long aggrieved Arabs and arch-foe Iran, which is now developing its own nuclear programme — for energy, it says.

Police charges were filed against Vanunu last year after he violated restrictions on contacts with foreign journalists.

The indictment quoted him as telling US, British, Australian and French media that Israel assembled hydrogen and neutron bombs at Dimona and was annually producing 40 kilos (88 lb) of plutonium, enough to make 10 atom bombs, at the facility.

Vanunu’s supporters noted that there was little new here — a retread of disclosures made to Britain’s Sunday Times in the interview for which he was abducted in Rome by Israeli agents and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

But such details may not be what worries Israel now.

Security sources said that, during his nine years at Dimona, Vanunu was exposed to something — perhaps equipment, technical data, procedures or personnel — of major significance to Israel, though he remains unaware of its true value.

“Let’s just say he doesn’t know what he knows, but that an expert debriefer could get it out of him if given the chance,” a security source said without elaborating.

Vanunu’s lawyer, Michael Sfard, rejected such suggestions.

“This is a claim that, by definition, Mordechai cannot be expected to address fairly,” he said.

Israel’s Supreme Court, which has limited the security forces in areas such as interrogations and punitive counter-terrorism measures, upheld the travel ban on Vanunu.

Sfard said that while Israel, like many countries, acts pre-emptively against recidivists — people repeatedly arrested for criminal behaviour — Vanunu should not be so targeted.

“What sort of democracy limits a man’s liberty on the pure assumption that he could break the law again?” he said.

Frank Barnaby, a nuclear proliferation expert who questioned Vanunu about Dimona over a period of several days on behalf of the Sunday Times, said he doubted whether the whistleblower could produce any further information of use.

“I believe he told us everything he knew,” Barnaby said by telephone from Britain.

A former senior official from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency said more time would be needed to scour Vanunu’s memories of Dimona.

By all accounts, they are extensive. Israel’s Justice Ministry cited a scrapbook that Vanunu kept in prison in which he drew extensive sketches of the reactor.

He has confirmed its existence but described it as an innocent memory exercise.

“We learned while handling defectors during the Cold War that sometimes it takes many months to fully debrief someone who was exposed to something of value,” said the Mossad veteran, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Barnaby said such thinking should be taken in context.

“So much will have changed at Dimona by now that any knowledge he (Vanunu) has would have become obsolete,” he said.

Vanunu, who lives in a church hostel in Jerusalem on handouts from his fans, says that by refusing international inspections Israel risks a nuclear disaster and inflames regional tensions.

He says he went public on Dimona to stop a “second Holocaust”. He has also questioned the Jewish state’s right to exist.

When Vanunu was freed from jail in 2004, a former Mossad chief expressed concern the whistleblower could invent details about Israel’s nuclear capability and fuel calls for it to be curbed.

While some of Vanunu’s comments may have bolstered this theory — in one interview, he alleged that Israel engineered the 1963 assassination of US President John F. Kennedy to stop him probing Dimona — there is now a question of credibility.

“So few people are interested in hearing what he has to say these days, that even when it comes to Israel’s image abroad Vanunu is not much of a threat,” Karpin said.—Reuters



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