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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Worse housing, less money: How immigrants fare in Switzerland

In terms of living conditions, the population with a migrant background often lags behind their Swiss counterparts.

Worse housing, less money: How immigrants fare in Switzerland

Around 40 percent of Switzerland’s total population of 9 million have a migration background.

The Federal Statistical Office’s (FSO) Demography and Migration Section analysed how well (or not) these people live in Switzerland.

The results, published on Tuesday, indicate that in general, immigrants have “worse living and economic conditions” than the Swiss, especially in terms of housing as well as finances.

However, the report emphasised that “under no circumstances can migration status be considered as the only explanatory factor for the differences found between various population groups. Other variables, such as age, nationality, and education may also explain these differences.”

For instance, people coming from the EU / EFTA countries (Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) typically do better than those from third nations.

Also, there are marked differences in the standard of living between the first and second generation of immigrants, with the latter (already born in Switzerland) usually enjoying better living conditions.

Let’s look at some of the specifics

In terms of finances, 14 percent of foreigners have trouble making ends meet at the end of each month, while that proportion is 5 percent for people without the migration background.

By the same token, 6 percent of foreign nationals depend on social assistance, against 2 percent of Swiss people.

As far as housing is concerned, 20 percent of immigrants live in accommodation that are considered inferior (for instance, in terms of noise), versus 14 percent of non-migrant population.

There are, however, positives as well

“Over the last decade, the population with a migrant background has nevertheless seen an improvement in its situation for certain indicators, such as the difficulties in making ends meet and the poverty rate,” the FSO report states.

“Their median annual disposable income has also increased.”

It is important to note, too, that these figures concern primarily low-income people; living conditions and financial situation of those who are highly qualified and / or are university graduates and specialists in their field, is much better.

Within that group, in fact, foreigners sometimes earn higher wages than the Swiss.

READ ALSO: In which jobs in Switzerland do foreign workers earn more than the Swiss? 

Higher immigration

An increased number of foreign nationals have settled in the country in the past years, fuelling forecasts of population growth exceeding the 10-million mark in the near future.

In 2023, for instance, a total of 181,553 people immigrated to Switzerland, of which nearly 72 percent came from an EU or EFTA member state.

Given the above data — that is, lower living standards than non-immigrants — you may be wondering why so many people choose to come to Switzerland in the first place. 

The answer comes from another FSO study.

It indicated that about 40 percent move here for professional reasons, that is, because Swiss wages are higher (and sometimes by a lot) than nearly everywhere else in Europe.

That study also found that almost two-thirds of immigrants — more than 60 percent — want to stay in Switzerland permanently, with as many planning to obtain Swiss citizenship.