After having been primarily countries of emigration for more than two centuries, many parts of Europe gradually became destinations for international migrants in the last 50 years.
As a result, the number of European countries with a positive migration balance — meaning more people have entered than left the country — has grown over the last decades. In many cases, the size of net migration determines whether a country still has population growth or is entering a stage of population decline.
According to 2005 data, all countries of Western Europe (the European Union's first 15 members (EU-15), Norway, and Switzerland) have a positive migration balance, as do six of the 10 new EU Member States — Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Slovenia, and Slovakia. It is very likely that, sooner or later, this will also be the case in the rest of Europe.
Origin of the Data
This article is based on the analysis of demographic data published by Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency.
Eurostat collects its data from national sources in the 25 EU Member States, two accession countries (Bulgaria and Romania) and three candidate countries (Croatia, Macedonia, and Turkey). Eurostat does not correct or comment on national-level data.
In early 2006, the total population of Western and Central Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey was 594 million. The European Union (EU-25) had 462 million inhabitants, 389 million (84 percent) of which were either citizens or foreign residents of the EU-15. The other 73 million were citizens or foreign residents of the 10 new EU Member States.
Outside the EU-25, 29.3 million people were living in the accession countries of Bulgaria and Romania. Turkey, which started official accession discussions with the EU last year, had a population of 72.5 million. Together, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland accounted for another 12 million people in Western Europe. In the western Balkans, there were 17 million people in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo).
Natural Population Change
Demographic stagnation best describes Europe's native populations. Between 2000 and 2004, the annual natural population change (births minus deaths) in the EU-15 was as low as +0.1 percent. Most new EU Member States in Central Europe and several countries in Southern Europe experienced natural population decline.
In the EU-25, natural growth amounted to +0.07 percent. As a result, Europe's population increase of more than 2.0 million people between January 2005 and January 2006 was mainly driven by immigration (see Table 1).
Table 1. Demographic Indicators in Europe, 2005
Source: EUROSTAT, Chronos Database.
In 2005, Western and Central Europe still experienced a population increase. In the 28 countries of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, total population growth was +2.1 million. But nine of the 28 EU/EEA countries as well as both EU accession countries of the next enlargement round (Bulgaria and Romania) as well as candidate country Croatia had more deaths than births. The other 19 countries analyzed in Table 1 still experienced some natural population growth. Net migration was positive in 25 of the 30 analyzed countries. Due to the low number of births, the number of countries with declining domestic populations will increase.
Immigration-Driven Population Growth
During the 1990s and early 2000s, immigration to southern Europe — particularly Italy, Portugal, and Spain — as well as to Austria, Ireland, and the UK increased considerably. At the same time, the number of immigrants arriving in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands decreased. Some countries — including Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia — still had more emigration than immigration in the early 1990s but have become immigration countries over the last decade.
Several countries, in particular the Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, Slovenia, and Slovakia, only showed a population growth in 2005 because of immigration. In other countries, such as Germany and Hungary, recent population decline would have been much larger without a positive migration balance. The EU-25, in 2005, had an overall net migration rate of +3.7 per 1,000 inhabitants and a net gain from international migration of +1.8 million people. This accounts for almost 85 percent of Europe's total population growth in 2005.
Relative to population size, the Greek part of Cyprus had the largest positive migration balance (+27.2 per 1,000 inhabitants), followed by Spain (+15.0), Ireland (+11.4), Austria (+7.4), Italy (+5.8), Malta (+5.0), Switzerland (+4.7), Norway (4.7), and Portugal (+3.8). In contrast, Lithuania (-3.0 per 1,000 inhabitants), the Netherlands (-1.8), Latvia (-0.5), Poland (-0.3), Estonia (-0.3), Romania (-0.5), and Bulgaria (-1.8) had a negative migration balance.
Net migration in absolute numbers in 2005 was largest in Spain (+652,000) and Italy (+338,000), followed by the UK (+196,000), France (+103,000), Germany (+99,000), Portugal (+64,000), Austria (+61,000), and Ireland (+47,000). Among the new EU Member States and accession countries in Central Europe, the Czech Republic experienced the largest net migration gain (+36,000). But Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia also had a positive migration balance, as did EU candidate country Croatia.
In most of today's EU and EEA countries, the number and share of the foreign-born population has increased. Since the early 1990s, the largest increases occurred in Spain. Relative to population size, increases have also been considerable in Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Luxembourg.
Of the 474 million citizens and legal foreign residents of the EU/EEA and Switzerland, some 42 million were born outside their European country of residence. In absolute terms, Germany had by far the largest foreign-born population (10.1 million), followed by France (6.4 million), the UK (5.8 million), Spain (4.8 million), Italy (2.5 million), Switzerland (1.7 million), and the Netherlands (1.6 million).
Relative to population size, two of Europe's smallest countries — Luxembourg (37.4 percent) and Liechtenstein (33.9 percent) — had the largest stock of immigrants, followed by Switzerland (22.9 percent), the Baltic states of Latvia (19.5 percent) and Estonia (15.4 percent), Austria (15.1 percent), Ireland (14.1 percent), Cyprus (13.9 percent), Sweden (12.4 percent), and Germany (12.3 percent).
It is worth noting, however, that the majority of the foreign-born populations in Estonia and Latvia are of ethnic Russian origin. These Russians had settled as internal migrants during the Soviet era and only "became" international migrants when the former Soviet Union broke up. Indeed, the size of Latvia and Estonia's foreign-born populations decreased in the 1990s as ethnic Russians returned to Russia.
In the majority of Western European countries, the foreign-born population accounted for between seven and 15 percent of the total population. In most of the new EU Member States in Central Europe (with the exception of the Baltic States and Slovenia) the share of foreign born was still below five percent (see Table 2).
Table 2. Foreign-Born Populations in Europe (EU/EEA + Switzerland), 2005
Source: OECD Database, UN Migration Database (2005)
Europe's demographic situation is characterized by growing life expectancy and declining birth rates. This leads to a situation in which more and more countries are experiencing a decrease in the size of their native populations.
In contrast to earlier historical periods, most countries of Europe now see more immigrants entering than emigrants leaving. As a result, the EU as a whole and most Member States report population growth mainly driven by net gains from migration.