What depopulation means for Europe

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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.

The causes

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.