More than two out of ten people in Europe are aged 65+. One in ten is living in an urban or semi-urban region experiencing a decline in population. While, in rural regions, three out of four children are living in a depopulating area. More than one in two Mediterranean children, moreover, is an only child. Eastern and Central Europe as well, are harshly affected by depopulation. There is no doubt that this phenomenon has become an emergency for the whole continent, with things expected to worsen in the near future, now exacerbated by the pandemic.
Studies have proven that the emptying of rural areas bears negative consequences not only on the economy and the environment, but it also poses a threat to the political stability of the European Union as a whole. It is of no surprise therefore that countries are tackling this phenomenon with significant resources in their respective Recovery Plans, but doubts arise as to the efficacy of policies aimed at inverting a trend that started in the 60s and is showing no signs of slowing down. Depopulation has all it takes to be considered as a crisis with the potential of breaking up the European Union.
In order to understand the root of the problem, one must look at the demographics of the European Union: a long-developed and educated area of the world, characterized by welfare states and political stability. As a consequence, our continent has experienced a consistent rise in life expectancy (with 13 European countries among the top 20 in the world) as well as a drop in fertility (with Spain, Italy and Malta already in the lowest-low fertility rate of less than 1.3 children per woman), resulting indeed in population ageing. This phenomenon has disproportionately affected rural areas, as people aged 65+ are more inclined than their younger compatriots to live outside of urban environments.
The demographics explain part of the issue, but there is more to it. People, in fact, move. Rural to urban migration accounts for an important share in explaining depopulation of internal areas. Younger generations frequently emigrate from these places in search of better economic conditions. The result is an increasing urban-rural polarization of the European population, where both the previously mentioned demographic indicators (much more favourable around the city) and migration add to the story.
People also move between States: the European Union was founded on the principles of free-movement of goods and individuals and young people are taking advantage of it, so much so as to cause this EU right to be put into discussion by certain governments. It is no secret that Western and Northern countries have significantly increased their population at the expense of Eastern and Southern rural areas, where an international exodus of the youth is taking place. The list of these countries is long, but concrete examples come from Romania, half of whose teenagers have solid plans to leave, or Latvia, which fears abandonment of its workforce after having lost one fifth of it since EU accession.
Finally, preliminary studies of the pandemic effects show no mercy on the demographics of the most fragile countries of the European Union. Fertility being affected the most, with the economic crisis exacerbating the inequalities and social instability of those most isolated from the cities.
A region subjected to emigration and low fertility is naturally impoverished. Schools close, doctors leave, human capital is dispersed, and governments disinvest in services. Parallelly, a phenomenon called brain drain, whereby the youth leave to continue with their studies and achieve higher career goals, also leads to a depletion of human capital resources, creating a vicious cycle of socio-economic losses. The desertification of villages and towns also leads to a drop in house prices, causing further economic harm to the inhabitants of the land.
Additional damages of depopulation concern the environment. In Spain, 10% of the population occupies 70% of the national territory; in Italy, the 4% living in peripheral areas, according to the classifications of the National Strategy for “Inner Areas” (SNAI), inhabits 30% of the land. These people are proper keepers of their territory. Geologically fragile countries such as the Mediterranean ones, desperately need local experts to regulate nature and take care of the territory, avoiding the bad consequences of adverse meteorological events. This constant presence on the land in some places no longer exists: forests have invaded mountain cropland, rivers and streams have been left free to erode the land, bushes have been left to grow undisturbed, causing serious issues of natural security.
Finally, depopulation poses a threat to the solidity of the European Union as a political entity. History tells us that those who have been left behind by politics tend to go extreme and to advocate for anti-European policies. Brexit is a clear case of what the consequences of a protest vote can be, and there the rural-urban divide in vote distribution is stark. In the same way, globalization and EU integration have created winners and losers, with rural and unskilled people being on the unfortunate side. Voting behaviors mirror this fact: studies have proven that radical right-wing votes are cast with higher frequency in lower density areas with lower quality services and with lower immigration. In Spain, where the countryside has lost 28% of its population in the last 50 years, obtaining the nickname España Vacia, or empty Spain, new rural platforms asking for investments in the internal areas have emerged. They all fall under the umbrella of España Vaciada, a movement with populist tendencies which is worrying PSOE and PP, the historical parties, in the event of a political descent which could destabilize the fragile Spanish equilibrium. Overall, the Spanish case should serve as a warning for other countries and definitely worries the EU.
What the EU can do
The European Union is aware of the threat depopulation poses to the integrity of its institutions. The pandemic has accelerated a long existing demographic crisis, so Recovery Plans are massively addressing the issue. Many are the projects and programs designed by countries to tackle depopulation, with digitalization being the most common way to address it. The Italian PNRR, after reforming the ZES (Special Economic Zones), areas located in the south with special economic concessions, will devote two billion euros to finance the SNAI (with the ultimate goal of improving local healthcare systems and digital connectivity between villages), to reclaim confiscated goods from the Mafia and to fight school dropouts in poorer areas. Spain will invest even more, around ten billion euros, destined to fight rural depopulation by promoting digital and professional training, boosting digitalization and building a diffused broadband system, investing in rejuvenation of public and private buildings and in sustainable energy pilot projects.
Other countries follow in the attempt to slow down the process of social desertification, but many doubts arise as to the efficacy of tackling depopulation with a generalized national program and with few collaborations with the local authorities. Every village, town and region is different and different must be the solution adopted to counter this crisis. There is no silver bullet to stop emigration, and neither is there a single answer to counter the recent demographic trends. Each assessment of a successful project underlines how the tailoring of the solution and the individuation of the causes have been fundamental to bringing home significant results. Moreover, there are doubts as to whether immigration will be able on its own to compensate for the vacant houses and jobs left by the locals. Immigrants too want to maximize their chances of success, and therefore target cities which, by nature, are more open-minded and offer more chances.
Digitalizing, improving services, capturing smart workers and digital nomads, opening up to slow tourism and sharing mobility: these are the pillars for countering a process which is threatening the existence of Europe as we know it. Whether the recovery plans will work in this sense will depend mainly on the national governments. But their success would serve as a proof that the EU can fight depopulation, thus giving a much-needed boost in the trust in the European institutions, exactly where it has historically been missing. This battle is one Europe cannot lose.