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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How many residence permits does Italy grant to non-EU nationals?

More than 274,000 non-EU nationals were granted the right to reside in Italy in 2021, marking a sharp increase on previous years according to new Eurostat data.

How many residence permits does Italy grant to non-EU nationals?

In 2021, Italy issued some 274,100 first-time residency permits to non-EU nationals – a whopping 159-percent increase on the previous year.

In fact, Italy was the EU country with the largest year-on-year increase in the number of residence permits granted to non-EU nationals, according to a new Eurostat report.  

The number of permits issued to non-EU nationals by the Italian government in 2020 was 105,700.

The 2021 figure represented nine percent of the total number of residency visas issued across the EU.

Italy issued the fourth-highest number of permits of any EU country, after Poland (967,300), Spain (371,800) and France (285,200).

READ ALSO: When and how should I renew my Italian residence permit?

However, Italy actually granted relatively few residence permits relative to the size of its population: just under five permits per 1000 inhabitants in 2021.

This was among the lowest ratios in the EU – Romania sat at the bottom of the table with 1.5 permits per 1000 residents.

In terms of the types of residence permits granted over the course of last year, Italy was the second EU country for the number of permits issued on family-related grounds (120,500 permits, equivalent to 44 percent of the country’s total) and the sixth member state for the number of residence permits issued for employment-related reasons (50,600 permits, equivalent to 18.5 percent of the total).

Study-related permits (17,807 – 6.5 percent) and permits falling into the ‘Other’ category (85,171 – 31.1 percent) completed the picture. 

As for the nationalities of those who received Italian residence permits in 2021, Albanian nationals made up the biggest group (29,732), followed by people from Morocco (23,766), Pakistan (18,232), Bangladesh (17,987) and Nigeria (12,787). 

There were 5.2 million foreign residents in Italy as of January 1st 2022, according to Italian national statistics office Istat. The country has a total population of just under 59 million.

Italy’s foreign population statistics can vary depending on the source of the data. In particular, data provided by Istat often differ slightly from those provided by European statistical offices such as Eurostat.

EU trends

Taking the EU as a whole into consideration, the number of residence permits issued to foreign nationals increased by 31 percent between 2020 and 2021 (+693,700). 

This notable year-on-year increase was mainly driven by a rising number of permits issued for employment and education reasons. 

READ ALSO: Which countries in Europe impose language tests for residency permits?

Compared with 2020, there was a 47-percent increase (+429,100) in residence permits issued for employment-related reasons and a 42-percent increase (+105,000) in residence permits for education-related reasons.

The number of residence permits issued on a yearly basis across the Union has roughly doubled over the past decade, going from 1.5 million in 2011 to just under 3 million in 2021.