How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

Crowds at Bern station. Photo by Sebastian Meier on Unsplash
The EU saw a population decline in the past two years.. (Photo by Sebastian Meier on Unsplash)

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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The Syrian refugee who became mayor of a German village

Ryyan Alshebl fled war-torn Syria in 2015, arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos after a harrowing four-hour journey on a rubber boat.

The Syrian refugee who became mayor of a German village

Eight years on, he is the mayor of a German village.

“It was dark and cold and there was not a single light to be seen on Lesbos,” he recalls.

“A few hours ago we had been in a normal Mediterranean town in Turkey. The environment had transformed with the cold and dark, and of course the feelings of fear that go with such a journey.”

Alshebl, then barely 21, was among a huge wave of refugees who arrived in Europe that year.

After landing in Greece, he made his way through Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia by public transport and on foot, taking 12 days in total to reach Germany.

A child walks past tents inside the new refugee camp of Kara Tepe in Mytilene, on Lesbos, on March 29, 2021. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

He eventually ended up at a refugee centre at Althengstett, a rural region near the Black Forest.

“In the shared accommodation, where you cannot expect more than a bed, a roof and some food, for which you are still thankful, you can only do one thing: get back on your feet quickly and invest rapidly in your own future,” he said.

Alshebl soon learned to speak German fluently — “if you are in the countryside you have no other choice” — and landed a traineeship as an administrative assistant at Althengstett town hall.

He earned German citizenship in 2022, a prerequisite for anyone who wants to stand in local elections in Germany.

READ ALSO: How well have refugees integrated in Germany since 2015?

‘Taking responsibility’

Now 29, he will take up his post as mayor of Ostelsheim, a village near Althengstett, in June.

He is believed to be the first Syrian from the wave of refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015-16 to be elected to a political post.

Alshebl was joined by four friends on his journey to Europe. But he left behind his parents and one brother, though a second brother had already moved to Germany on a student visa.

He said his experience of fleeing Syria and having “to take responsibility not only for (myself) but also for the environment” had given him the drive to go into politics.

“To take on this responsibility at such an age, you learn a lot. Of course, it creates a new person, a new personality,” he said.

Alshebl ran as an independent candidate in the election, winning 55.41 percent of the vote.

But he is also a member of the Greens, “because climate protection is very important” to him.

His victory is all the more striking given that Ostelsheim, a village of 2,700 people, is a traditionally conservative community.

A refugees welcome sign in Germany. Photo: PATRICK SEEGER / DPA / AFP

A refugees welcome sign in Germany. Photo: PATRICK SEEGER / DPA / AFP

Situated among a cluster of hills, the village is surrounded by rolling fields lined with dry stone walls and hedges.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party harnessed anger over the influx of asylum seekers in 2015-16 to win votes and ultimately enter parliament for the first time nationally.

READ ALSO: Why tensions are brewing in eastern Germany over refugee arrivals

But Alshebl says he has not seen right-wing extremism personally.

Alshebl believes he was elected because he listened to the people’s
concerns — from childcare to digitalisation issues.

He admits to not really “feeling anything” on hearing he had won the election in March as he was “overwhelmed”. But as congratulations poured in from around the world, it became clear that his story was “bigger than a mayoral election in a small community”.

Alshebl believes the fact he triumphed against two other local candidates who grew up in the area says a lot about the mentality of the voters.

The countryside of Baden-Württemberg, where Ostelsheim is located. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

“It is a sign that people did not count the origin, but the qualifications. It is a sign of openness to the world,” he said.

Alshebl’s parents, a schoolteacher and an agricultural engineer, belong to Syria’s Druze minority, but he describes himself as not religious.

He has “mixed feelings” about Syria, which he has not been able to visit since living in Germany.

“It is the country where you were born and raised… You long for the people you grew up with,” he said. “But I am happy that I got this chance to live here at all” when others have not, he said.