The different populations in Europe have undergone incisive quantitative and structural changes in the last decades. Notwithstanding the various regional differences, the causes for the current demographic change in Europe are related to the consequences of a demographic transition. This has been ushered in by a long-term trend towards low fertility and an unprecedentedly high life expectancy. This change in population processes takes place in the context of historical economic growth and extensive societal modernization processes. Since population changes occur very slowly and are rooted in past population structures, all European countries will be facing similar demographic conditions in the near future: their populations are aging, and many countries are facing a negative natural population balance in the long term, that is, a population decline as a result of a deficit of births in comparison to deaths.
The consequences of demographic change have profound effects on all aspects of life, for instance on the employment and housing markets, the capacity and sustainability of the public and private infrastructure (e.g. uneconomical local public transportation, closing of schools due to low numbers of pupils), as well as the capacity of social security systems. Politics, the economic market, and society are facing significant pressures to adapt to and confront these enormous challenges.
European history was always characterized by far-reaching, international migration flows. However, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by migration patterns which were impacted by the processes of decolonization and the immigration of so-called “guest workers”. These migration movements have led to larger populations of immigrants in the destination countries, bringing up questions of how to integrate these immigrants and how immigrants’ fertility patterns are affected by integration. At the same time, the self-selective emigration of mainly young people creates additional challenges with regard to an aging and shrinking population in their countries of origin as well.
While the demographic changes related to aging and, to a degree, population decline are similar in all European countries, there are large differences regarding the specific migration movements to each of these countries. The past international labor migration flowing predominantly from the South to the North has been replaced recently by new migration patterns. These may be described as an internal European migration, which has become increasingly significant with the end of the Cold War and with the spatial expansion of the EU in Eastern Europe. Migrants’ regions of origin and their motives for migrating are becoming increasingly diverse. In this context, European and national migration policies endeavor different goals. On the one hand, migration policies aim to avert an unlimited immigration from less developed regions into the labor markets and social security systems of the European welfare states. On the other hand, immigration is to be coordinated such that it contributes to mitigating the repercussions of demographic change. For this reason, migrants should be mainly young, qualified, and productive people. International migration flows are currently one of the causes for globalization. These flows not only connect the populations in the industrialized countries with the still growing populations in developing countries, but also exemplify the opposite demographic developments in these two groups of countries.
The demographic transition and the effects of migration are leading to considerable regional differences within Europe. Demographically young and still growing regions exist next to regions with already above-average aging populations, selective emigration, and population decline. Demographically and economically prosperous regions with jobs, infrastructure, and a high standard of living create additional incentives for immigrating there. Moreover, there are peripheral regions marked by diverse disadvantages, such as high unemployment or lacking opportunities for the future, which accelerate emigration. The coexistence of these two trends impedes the political attempts to hinder the diverging development of these regions and to reduce the regional social inequality of living standards in Europe. The following section presents the causes and effects of demographic change and international migration processes in Europe, using theoretical approaches and empirical findings, while drawing special attention to the position of Germany in Europe.
This text is part of the policy brief on