EU’s Demographic Challenges
By Georgi Ninov - Research Analyst
As of 2016 the population of the 28 members of the European Union amounted to 511.5mn people or around 69% of the total population of the continent. While the majority of the EU countries are held in high regard in terms of their quality of life, there are considerable demographic issues that have been bothering the EU for decades – low birth rates, ageing population and high emigration.
Currently, the birth and death rates in the EU are almost identical (between 9 and 10 per 1000 people) which means that the population growth as of lately is driven largely through net migration. Around 65% of the EU citizens are at a “working” age (15-64 years) but only 26% of this group are under 30 years of age. A suitable example of the ageing issue is EU’s flagship economy – and most populous country – Germany. Data for 2016 show that total births amounted to 792 thousand while deaths for the year stood at 910.8 thousand. Nevertheless, total population increased with 0.4%, due to a net migration of 500 thousand people. According to UNDESA population projections, France will overtake Germany as EU’s most populous country before 2085 even though presently the difference between the two European giants is around 15mn people.
While the demographic situation in countries like Germany, Sweden or Spain is far from glowing, the Eastern European members (especially some of those from the former Eastern Bloc) are in deep crisis. Prolonged economic stagnation in the post-Cold War era caused high emigration (in many cases towards other EU members) which combined with low birth rates has resulted in a dramatic and continuing population decline. In the period 1990-2016 the Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania shrank by 27% and 23% respectively, followed by Bulgaria (18%), Romania (15%) and Croatia (13%). Projections show that this downfall is likely going to continue in the near future and until 2050 the population of the aforementioned countries along with Poland, Hungary and non-EU members like Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Albania will decrease by 15% or more.
Whereas countries like Sweden or Germany are so far able to balance their lack of fertility with positive net migration, such measures are unlikely to be effective in Eastern Europe – not least due to local resistance to taking in migrants (as evidenced from the refugee crisis since the war in Syria). Government incentives to encourage births have been in place in several of the affected countries, though they have yielded little success as of yet. The improvement of macroeconomic fundamentals (higher wages, job opportunities and better standard of living as a whole) might be the key to turning around the trends – the economic growth in countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic has led to an increase in population in the last decade.