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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EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

The opposition CDU has accused the federal government of wanting to “sell off” German passports with its planned reform of German citizenship law – designed to make naturalising as German easier and allowing dual citizenship for non-EU nationals. One expert says the CDU could water down reforms.

EXPLAINED: Could Germany's conservatives block dual citizenship?

As The Local Germany first reported last month, Germany’s federal Interior Ministry plans to present its draft law liberalising German citizenship rules in December.

Besides allowing dual citizenship for non-EU nationals, the federal traffic light government plans to shorten the amount of time someone needs to have been in Germany to naturalise as German from eight years to five. If someone has integrated well, for example by passing a B2 German exam, they would then be eligible for a fast-track of three years instead of the current six.

Under the plans, becoming German would also be simplified for both children and some seniors.


All three governing parties – the Social Democrats, Greens, and liberal Free Democrats – support the reform, as does the Left Party. Yet the CDU opposes the reforms, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei saying on Friday that “the German passport must not become junk.”

The CDU has a long history of opposing dual citizenship or citizenship reform in general, and blocked a 1999 proposal from the SPD-Green government at the time to allow dual citizenship.

In a nutshell, it did this by collecting millions of signatures on a petition against allowing dual citizenship and winning the Hesse state election, before blocking the proposal in the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper chamber representing federal states.

So could history repeat itself? Could a citizenship reform law pass a Bundestag where the government has a majority only to be derailed yet again in the Bundesrat?

Dr. Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, says the short answer is yes – it’s possible. But even in that event, she would still expect to see a compromise that would see a watered down law pass.

What is the Bundesrat and how could the CDU block citizenship reform in it?

Laws that pass the Bundestag then go to the Bundesrat, which has 69 seats representing Germany’s 16 states. Thirty-five votes are needed to reach a majority in that chamber.

The Bundesrat only has an advisory role on many laws. On these laws, the Bundestag can simply override the Bundesrat if it doesn’t agree. Other laws, however, particularly those that have large effects on how federal states manage their services, and thus finances – require the Bundesrat’s consent.

Hakan Demir, an SPD MdB for Berlin-Neukölln, answering a constituent’s question on, a watchdog website for German parliamentarians, argues the law is not expected to require the Bundesrat’s agreement. He says that’s because it will not have an impact on federal state financing. 

Green MdB Filiz Polat also says the plan is that the law wouldn’t need the Bundesrat’s consent, suggesting the traffic light parties may try to write the law such that they can argue that it doesn’t have to go to the upper chamber.

But Münch says there’s a legal case to be made for why citizenship reform would need to go through the Bundesrat – giving the CDU the opportunity to block it – just as it did in 1999 when a previous dual citizenship proposal had a Bundestag majority but failed in the Bundesrat.

“If we look at a theme like the right to German nationality, naturally that’s something that strongly affects how the states run their own Interior ministries and their immigration offices – which actually implement the laws,” says Münch. “For this reason, laws affecting that would require the Bundesrat’s consent.”

Münch explains that each state has a certain number of seats that only roughly correspond to its population. Coalition governments within those states typically vote as a bloc though, rather than along party lines.

That means that Baden-Württemberg, for example, which has six seats under a Green-CDU coalition, doesn’t simply split 3-3 in the Bundesrat like their parties in the Bundestag might. The coalition government in that state has to decide together how all six of their votes will go.

The current party composition of Germany’s upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, which represents state governments. A citizenship reform bill must pass both the Bundestag and Bundesrat, which doesn’t typically vote on party lines. It has 69 seats, with 35 votes needed for a majority. Image: Bundesrat

“The CDU and CSU don’t have actually have a majority in the Bundesrat, but they can, at the state level, push for their federal state to abstain from a vote,” Münch tells The Local. “And they’re in a lot of state governments.”

This means that the CDU in our example of Baden-Württemberg, a state where it shares power with the Greens, can prevent all six state votes from being cast in the Bundesrat – meaning that a citizenship law that’s passed the Bundestag can fall short of the 35 votes needed to pass in the Bundesrat – even when parties supporting the reform hold most of the seats.

“That’s why, when we’re discussing something like citizenship law, which would require the Bundesrat’s consent, an abstention is as good as a ‘no’ vote,” says Münch. “So the traffic light parties have to work with the Union here.”

Münch says it would be easier for the CDU to force their state to abstain on citizenship reform if they’re one of two parties – as in Baden-Württemberg – than if they’re outnumbered in their state government by two other pro-reform parties, as in Saxony. However, how a state votes also depends on which party leads the coalition or has the state’s Interior Ministry.

READ ALSO: HISTORY: What’s behind the push to reform dual citizenship laws in Germany?

Compromise still likely even if the CDU blocks citizenship reform

Münch says the traffic light parties will probably find it harder than normal to work with the CDU on a subject like citizenship law – an emotional topic that gets right at the question of who gets to be German. But she still expects a compromise.

“I don’t see a situation happening where the Union can block this proposal completely,” says Münch. “They’re simply not strong enough politically right now to do that.”

Where Münch does see the potential for pushback from the CDU is not on whether dual citizenship should be allowed or not, but on the question of how long someone must be resident in Germany in order to naturalise.

This means that although the right to dual citizenship may still end up being passed, the time requirements may not end up being shortened as much as the current government might wish.

“We’re not in the 1990s anymore,” adds Münch. “German society is much different now than it was then. Germany is much more an immigration country now than we were even then. That’s why I don’t think this is an ‘all or nothing’ question of whether this passes or not.”


Majority – (die) Mehrheit

Vote – (die) Stimme

Immigration country (a country that attracts immigrants) – (das) Einwanderungsland

Dual nationality or citizenship – (die) Doppelstaatsbürgerschaft

Composition of seats (in a political chamber) – (die) Sitzverteilung

Governing coalition – (die) Regierungskoalition

The Federal Council – (der) Bundesrat