For decades, the populations of roughly half of all European countries have been falling and ageing. The causes are manifold, but the most prominent is undoubtedly that of human capital flight – often dubbed the ‘brain drain’ effect. European policy-makers increasingly speak of ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ regions to describe the major imbalances in the provision of skills and competences across the EU. The picture is not a uniform one, however, with population decreases significantly more pronounced in the rural Europe of country villages and towns. Vibrant, expanding capital areas can often disguise the reality further afield.
Part of the story for this trend can be told with reference to longstanding economic inequalities between European regions, notably the north-south and east-west divides, the roots of which it is necessary to go back often hundreds of years to uncover. Internal EU migration, particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, has driven millions of younger people, notable educated professionals, to become expatriates. The result is an increasingly vicious cycle. Regions with rapidly shrinking populations develop larger and larger gaps in the provision of social services and infrastructure, disincentivising return migration or investment, public or private.
Population decline has gradually risen up the agenda in European politics, but remains a somewhat subsurface issue. Nevertheless, it has invited a range of responses from national political figures, which in character reveal its intersections as a question of economic, but also cultural, resonance. For Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the steady decline of the country’s population since the early 1980s presents a serious threat to the “survival of our culture and our civilisation”. His response has been to focus on encouraging native-born citizens to have children through a range of financial incentives, dedicating 5% of GDP to these efforts and providing 10 million forint (£27,000) interest-free loans for families. A very similar approach (€2,000 for every child born) has been adopted by Greece’s government since 2019, with a particular focus on the remote island communities that have experienced a mass departure of younger working-age people.
The explicitly cultural concerns lying behind many programmes to encourage population growth have sparked controversy on multiple counts. Accompanied as they are by assumptions regarding appropriate family structure, they promise to impose additional social pressures to conformity. For instance, by applying further stigma to single people or childless couples by suggesting that their individual choices are, at best, egotistical; at worst, unpatriotic. Subtler but not less relevant are the links to the conspiracy theory of a concerted process of population ‘replacement’ of ethnic Europeans by outsiders. This is an idea that Orbán has expressly referred to, positing that a country such as his might simply disappear, remarking that “it’s not hard to imagine that there would be one single last man who has to turn the lights out”.
He is far from the only major political figure in Europe to have built their brand on a combination of hostility to immigration and concern to boost native population figures. Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen have also spoken of the perils of demographic change, and presented programmes based on a blend of economic interventionism and exclusionary communitarianism with mantras of national identity and survival at their core. Salvini went so far as to confidently proclaim his far-right party the heir to Italy’s once-mighty Communists because of its approach to labour issues. His claim was met with general ridicule in Italy, but Le France’s Front national can lay a more solid claim to a leftist inheritance. It has been gaining rapid ground in the formerly staunchly left-wing regions of the north and east, which its leader Le Pen has dubbed ‘Forgotten France’ as well as consolidating its base in the traditionally conservative Midi (Mediterranean France).
In stark contrast, a range of often local or regional politicians have responded to population decline and its economic impact by bucking the conventional labels of left and right and expectations of policy solutions more broadly. Southern Italy, for instance, is a region blighted by rural poverty for centuries from which millions emigrated to the United States in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, has experienced the depopulation of hundreds of small towns and villages. In the Calabrian hilltop town of Riace, local authorities, with state support, have repurposed hundreds of abandoned residences for the accommodation of refugees. As the mayor puts it, “the multiculturalism, the variety of skills and personal stories which people have brought to Riace have revolutionised what was becoming a ghost town.”
This approach is not the magic solution to decades-long trends of decline. The town still faces high levels of unemployment and the social deprivation typical of its region more broadly, and the arrivals have been met with hostility from some residents. However, by facilitating these new citizens in learning local trades as well as developing language skills, Riace’s authorities have made concrete advances in bringing the area back to life – quite literally – and in the process managed to challenge, through encouraging cooperative interaction, generational and cultural divides.
In Spain, where the term la España vacía has been coined the sparsely populated 70% of the land area that is home to just 10% of the population, the much-discussed rise of the right-wing populist Vox overshadows the growth of regionalist political movements like Teruel existe. Teruel is a sparsely-populated inland province in southern Aragon whose residents have long considered themselves forgotten by the national government – and indeed by most Spaniards. Infrastructure is a primary concern. As activists there point out, until just over twenty years ago, the area possessed no motorways. Frustrated by inaction on promised investments, the long-standing Teruel existe fielded candidates for the first time in the November 2019 election, and placed first in the province.
In the face of nativist responses to questions of demography, it is increasingly local politicians that are taking on the mantle of the pluralistic European ideal. Mayors such as Palermo’s Leoluca Orlando, who began his career as an anti-mafia campaigner, have emerged as champions of refugees and asylum seekers in the face of widespread hostility from national figures. Orlando has campaigned for the abolition of the residency permit and sought to foster a sense of inclusive Palermitan citizenship to engage the new arrivals. Despite the high unemployment and poverty rates of his own city, his internationalism and idealism have seemingly struck a nerve with locals. The veteran politician was reelected for a fifth term in 2017. The late mayor of Poland’s northern city of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, occupied a similar position as the face of his country’s progressive tradition, throwing his support behind the banners of multiculturalism and LGBTQ rights in the context of state-sponsored discrimination.
Population is a keenly contested subject in European politics, and, as this overview will have suggested, it is here to stay. In some parts of the continent, it is already a central question in national conversation; in others, it remains a subsurface subject, one which politicians are keen to put on the backburner, whether on account of its cultural sensitivity, economic intractability, or sheer magnitude. As Europe’s population continues to age, and fundamental questions about its place in the world continue to be asked, we can expect to see it emerge as a major faultline in politics over the next decades.