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North Macedonia grapples with demographic challenge

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Demographic decline is the Balkans’ biggest challenge, Stevo Pendarovski, the president of North Macedonia, has said.

“If in the first decades [since the collapse of Yugoslavia] our biggest threat was ethnic tensions, in the past decade it is demography: more and more people are leaving.”

North Macedonia, Nato’s newest member, may have lost up to a quarter of its population since becoming the only country to secede peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991, according to some statisticians.

No one knows for sure because the country has not held a census since 2002, one year after it narrowly averted a civil war when ethnic Albanian insurgents sought greater rights from the majority Macedonian population. In 2002, the census registered almost 2.1m people in the country.

Analysis of birth and death records, along with tax and other databases, have led most experts to conclude that the real population is closer to 1.6m. 

“The tendencies are quite clear and no one is predicting that the decline will stop or slow down,” said Mr Pendarovski, who was speaking to the Financial Times on the sidelines of the Globsec security conference in Bratislava. 

A census planned for this year was postponed because of elections triggered last October when President Emmanuel Macron of France blocked North Macedonia and Albania from opening EU accession talks. The ruling Social Democrats have proposed to hold the headcount in April next year, but it will be contentious because of its implications for the sensitive ethnic power-sharing arrangement on which North Macedonia’s governance is based.

The census has been delayed in the past because of reluctance to confirm the precise ethnic breakdown of the population between Macedonians, Albanians and other minorities. 

Performers raise awareness of coronavirus social distancing rules in Skopje. Next year’s census in North Macedonia will yield important data on employment and fertility rates © Georgi Licovski/EPA-EFE

The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which draws its support primarily from ethnic Macedonians, has accused the government of “using the headcount to create ethnic tensions” and “working to falsify” it. The Social Democrats under premier Zoran Zaev have sought to appeal to ethnic Albanian voters under the slogan “one society for all”. 

As elsewhere in Europe, the ageing population is putting public finances under strain. North Macedonia has approximately 350,000 pensioners, and state subsidies to the pension fund were equivalent to 4.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018.

Although remittances of €1.7bn in 2019 covered the country’s trade deficit of €1.6bn that year, Branimir Stojanovic, an economist at the Vienna Institute for Economic Studies and a former adviser to the minister of finance, said that demographic decline and emigration are “reducing both human capital and long-term potential for economic growth”.

The EU finally authorised the beginning of accession talks with North Macedonia in late March. But joining the 27-country bloc is unlikely to be the panacea for the problem of depopulation: both Croatia and neighbouring Bulgaria experienced large-scale emigration after becoming members.

Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, told the FT that 200,000 Bulgarians returned to the country in March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold across Europe. She said that “people came back because they feel safer at home in Bulgaria”.

Ms Zaharieva said her government was working with large companies to try to find jobs that would keep these people in Bulgaria when the pandemic is over.

According to a January study by the Bulgarian ministry of labour and social policy, 60 per cent of the young adults studying or working abroad would like to return to Bulgaria if they could find suitable employment.

Hoping to capitalise on the temporary return of citizens during the pandemic, the government has begun a “Bulgaria wants you” campaign.

For North Macedonia, meanwhile, the first step is finding out how many people actually live in the country after almost a generation of guesswork. The forthcoming census will also yield important data in a number of other areas, including employment and fertility rates.

“It is absolutely crucial for the country to execute the census next year because no sound policies in any domain are possible without correct statistical data,” said Mr Pendarovski.

“At present, all vital statistics are based on estimations and that is not something any serious administration should be doing.” 



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End of an era as Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona part company

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Lionel Messi updates

Barcelona football club said on Thursday that Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all players, is leaving because of “financial and structural obstacles” that it blamed on financial regulations imposed by La Liga, which runs the top two divisions in Spain, requiring the team to rein in its spending.

Messi, the frontman of FC Barcelona’s success for more than a decade, will be leaving a club where he has spent the entirety of his career, winning every leading trophy and personal accolade.

Messi and Barcelona had intended to sign a new contract on Thursday but ultimately the player and club were forced to separate, said Barcelona in a statement, adding that both sides “deeply regret” their split. La Liga declined to comment.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations),” Barcelona said. “As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Messi’s exit comes as Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid are at loggerheads with La Liga over the Spanish league’s plan to partner with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which plans to invest €2.7bn in the league, subject to clubs’ approval.

The exit of the superstar Argentina international, who earned a total of more than €555m between 2017 and 2021, according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, underlines the financial pressures at Barcelona.

The Catalan club sunk to a net loss of almost €100m in the 2019-20 season, the first to be disrupted by the pandemic, as revenues of €855m fell short of the €1bn set in its budget. Its debt has soared north of €1bn. In June, the club approved a €525m debt refinancing.

On the pitch, Barca finished third in La Liga, its worst showing since 2008. It has not won the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, since 2015.

The decision comes just days after Barca president Joan Laporta said the club “have to make sure” Messi stays and that the process was “on the right track”. The president had also called for “greater flexibility” from La Liga.

Despite the long affiliation between Messi and Barcelona, the player last year told the club he wanted to leave but ultimately decided to stay on to avoid a legal dispute.

Messi’s departure comes a day after La Liga agreed a €2.7bn deal with US private equity group CVC Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in a new entity that would manage broadcast, sponsorship and digital rights for the league.

Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid, which have been embroiled in a dispute with La Liga over plans for a breakaway European Super League, would stand to receive about €260m each from the deal with CVC.

The transaction was partly seen as a way to win over the support of Barcelona, which has been financially constrained by La Liga’s rules from making any high-profile acquisitions or renewal of contracts.

Real Madrid also lashed out at the CVC deal with CVC on Thursday, questioning its legality and accusing the Spanish league of negotiating the agreement without the club’s knowledge.

Barcelona followed up later on Thursday by joining Real in condemning La Liga’s planned partnership with the buyout firm. The club said: “FC Barcelona feels it is inappropriate to sign a half-century agreement given the uncertainties that always surround the football world. The terms of the contract that La Liga is describing condemn FC Barcelona’s future with regard to broadcasting rights.

“FC Barcelona wishes to express its surprise at an agreement driven by La Liga in which the teams’ opinions, including those of FC Barcelona, have not been taken into account.”

Spanish football clubs have yet to vote on the CVC agreement. Italy’s top football league, Serie A, turned down a similar agreement a few months ago.



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Europe targets adolescents for Covid jabs to curb Delta spread

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Covid-19 vaccines updates

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose habitual garb in public is a dark suit and tie, switched this week to a black T-shirt to encourage the young to get vaccinated over the holidays. 

“Many of you have questions or are scared,” Macron said in one of several videos he posted on TikTok and Instagram from what seemed to be the presidential holiday residence in southern France. “So I’ve decided to answer your questions directly. Go ahead.”

He has also posted short videos to correct misconceptions about the vaccines and France’s supposedly “freedom-killing” insistence on health passports to access bars and other public places. “Vaccination saves lives, the virus kills — it’s as simple as that,” he said in one. 

Macron may be one of the EU’s more visible leaders to urge the young to be jabbed, but he is not alone. 

On Wednesday, the UK belatedly extended its Covid-19 vaccination programme to 16- and 17-year-olds. But across continental Europe, governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have already been targeting as yet unvaccinated teenagers to fight rising infections and hospitalisations driven by the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

This vaccination drive, which anticipates the new school term starting in September, is partly why Europe has already overtaken the US in terms of vaccination rates per 100 people and, on current projections, will soon overtake the UK too.

In France, health ministry data show that more than 40 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 have already received one jab, and nearly 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. (In the vulnerable age group between 70 and 80, full vaccination coverage is close to 90 per cent.) 

Chart showing that Europe and the US have already vaccinated millions of teens, leaving the UK far behind

Most Nordic countries have also started to vaccinate teenagers and, by the end of July, almost one-third of 12-15 year-olds in Denmark had received at least one jab. “We need the immunity of the population, especially before a winter season,” Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority, said in June when announcing the decision.

Much the same is true in Germany, where more than 900,000 adolescents or 21 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17, have received at least one jab, and more than 10 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

Individual German parents and children already have had the legal right to get vaccinated since June, and several states had begun limited offerings of the jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

But health minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday plans to offer more jabs to youngsters before school begins. “This is absolutely not about applying pressure,” he said on RBB radio. “It is about giving those who want to be vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the opportunity.”

The next step in Europe will be to vaccinate young children, especially as Delta strain infections seem to be rising fastest among the unvaccinated young. In a recent UK study, almost a third of the positive Delta variant tests came from people aged 5 to 17.

“It’s clear that children under 12 will become the main reservoir of infections once a large share of the over-12 population is vaccinated,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. 

“It seems reasonable today to suppose that we’ll only be able to finish with this pandemic by vaccinating a very large share of the population, perhaps 90-95 per cent, by including children,” he said, noting that the jabs would have to be supplemented by other measures such as continued border controls as well.

In Spain, which has already overtaken the UK and the US in vaccinating its population, the government says its inoculation drive must now focus on younger people. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has declared that the country, where 59 per cent are fully vaccinated, deserves “the gold medal for vaccinations”. This week he said the country was on course to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of its population before the end of August.

But officials increasingly recognise that will not be enough to provide “herd immunity”. Infection rates in Spain — now in its fifth coronavirus wave — remain extremely high, with cases particularly prevalent among people in the 12-19 and 20-29 age groups; in the former, the full vaccination rate is less than 4 per cent.

High infection rates among these groups — with a 14-day rate of above 1,300 per 100,000 people — have spilled over to older groups. The 14-day rate among the over-eighties has been close to 300, even though according to official figures that age group is 100 per cent vaccinated.

“What is happening in Spain shows quite simply that the vaccinations do not have the same efficiency that was indicated in the trials . . . It is going to be more difficult to reach herd immunity,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization. 

He said the Delta variant — now accounting for more than 75 per cent of Spanish cases — was a key factor blunting vaccines’ impact and argued that the necessary level of protection would now probably require full vaccination for closer to 90 per cent of the overall population.

“We are only going to achieve this when we have revaccinated older people who are losing protection relatively quickly and when we have vaccinated young people and children,” he said. “The end is further away than we predicted.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo





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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Global house prices: Raising the roof



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