The major demographic change that plagues Eastern and Southern European is one of the EU’s biggest challenges in the new decade. Brussels now has to effectively respond to the realities of this multifaceted and difficult phenomenon at a time when Europe is being severely affected by other global changes that hinder further cohesion.

Europe is making progress when it comes to responding to global emerging challenges, including its transition to a greener and more digitalised economy. But a closer look, however, reveals that the demographic challenge is directly affecting Europe, as a whole in ways that are both alarming and call attention to the fact that Brussels must deal with the issue much sooner than later.

A turn to more attractive areas 

An increasing number of citizens from Eastern and Southern Europe are turning their backs on the rural regions of their respective countries in favour of trying their luck in areas where opportunities are easier to be found, which are most often in urban centres. Though this is not a new phenomenon as hundreds of thousands of Southern Europeans relocated to the north during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, the demographic change inside the countries is putting added pressure on regions that are in need of skilled professionals as they are experiencing a crippling brain drain.

While speaking to New Europe, the Commission’s Vice President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica warned that this fluid mobility ‘‘means that most of these people are of working-age, which creates a challenge, as the key drivers of the economy leave in pursuit of a better life elsewhere.’’

The rising outflow of people from Eastern to Western Europe is expected to worsen in the coming years. Data from the United Nations Population Prospects show that EU members in Eastern and Southern Europe are among the world’s fastest shrinking countries in terms of their demographics. Those statistics come at a time when the continent’s population is likely to fall by around 5% by 2050.

The Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU has already sounded the alarm and has urged its fellow members that the problem needs to be addressed at the EU level. Working under the motto of a ‘‘Strong Europe in a world of challenges’’, the Croatian Presidency aims to set out a full social, economic and territorial cohesion package for the bloc, one that puts find a solution to the demographic change at the top of the “to do” list.

Croatia has been particularly affected by demographic losses. Since joining the EU in 2013, 5% of Croatia’s overall population to immigration and is expected to experience an 18% decline by 2050.

On the opposite side of the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria holds the unfortunate position of topping the list of EU countries that has seen its population plummet since it joined the bloc in 2007. Bulgaria’s population is projected to drop from 6.9 million in 2020 to 5.4 million in 2050, a 22.5% decline, while Lithuania, one of the three Baltic republics – along with Estonia and Latvia – that joined the European Union in 2004,  s expected to face a 22.1% decline.

The reasons behind this exodus

Across Europe, people are living longer and having fewer children. Low birthrates and an increase in life expectancy, have hit Europe, in particular, hard in the last decades. The EU’s low rates of fertility and mortality and an ageing population have taken their toll. According to Eurostat figures, the median age of the EU’s population is projected to increase by 4.2 years, from 42.4 years in 2015 to 46.6 years in 2080.

Europe’s old-age dependency ratio is also expected to increase by 23% by 2080. In number terms, this would mean that by 2080 there will be just 2 people of working-age for every elderly person. An increase of this sort requires a major rise in spending on pensions and significantly pushes up the public debt.

Furthermore, countries losing working-age people to Europe’s north and west have numerous social and economic consequences. Spain and Italy are expected to lose more than a quarter of their workforce by 2050. This projected loss, both in Eastern and Southern Europe, is likely to further exacerbate those two regions’ depopulation problems. More specifically, countries in Southern Europe, such as Italy, whose public debt is over 130% of GDP, push away a productive part of their workforce.

An additional important factor in this potentially catastrophic problem is the fact that many women stay out of the labour force as a result of limited child care, which doesn’t allow them to return to work after giving birth. This creates demographic disparities and puts further stress on the economic divisions in the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe.

Despite the fact that countries such as Poland, Hungary, and non-EU member Serbia offer financial incentives for child-bearing, factors such as the freedom movement across Europe, as well as a common currency, make it harder to cope with emigration as an increasing number of citizens find it easier to seek opportunities outside their home country.

Brussels’ response

European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the significance of the demographic change in her mission statement saying that it ‘‘affects every part of our society: from the economy to healthcare, from migration to the environment” and added that solutions to the problem should be tied to improving people’s well-being.

‘‘The challenges linked to demography can also be transformed into opportunities: ensure work/life balance, encourage life-long learning and cultivate active experienced contributors to the community and society,’’ Šuica told New Europe while reiterating von der Leyen’s stated goal of offering quality-of-life solutions to the problem. ‘‘To avoid some regions in Europe falling behind, we need to make especially rural regions more attractive. This can be done by improving regional infrastructure and access to services, strengthening digital connectivity and creating employment opportunities,’’ Šuica added.

These solutions, however, cannot be done without the contribution of the main actors involved – namely, each country within the EU. The Conference on the Future of Europe, which is scheduled for this year, is an important forum to find ways that would effectively face the challenges related to Europe’s demographic loss, a position that Šuica reaffirmed in her comments to New Europe. ‘‘We will seek support and ideas from our citizens, many of whom are already finding innovative and creative solutions,’’ Šuica said.

In order for Europe to halt the outflow of people to other countries, it needs to adopt coherent policies that would convince would-be emigrants to stay. Policies that improve the quality of life for the population, including better education and major investments into infrastructure, need to be part of an overall strategy that assures every individual who lives in the European Union that they have a better future to look forward to.

At the same time, it is critical for Brussels to understand that people who tend to have lower employment rates, such as women and older people, need to be given better chances to find work.

In countries that are providing cheap and easily available child care, such as France, fertility rates are on the rise and women’s participation in the workforce is also at record levels. Furthermore, fostering a programme that encourages active ageing could improve the old-age dependency ratio – meaning there would be far less pressure on an economy to support a non-productive sector of the population.

Though the challenge needs to be addressed at the European level, ultimately long-term solutions to the demographic change will most likely require multilateral reforms in each country if they are going to find effective solutions that eventually lead to the restoration of their populations.