Whereas on the one hand former colonial states such as Belgium, France or the United Kingdom were already immigration countries in the 19th century, other European states, such as Interner Link: Germany and Austria, did not become countries of immigration until after the Second World War. In contrast with the colonial states, which granted the citizens of their colonies extensive immigration and residency rights, the guest worker model – whereby foreign workers were always intended only to be temporary immigrants – dominated in the latter countries. However, many former guest workers settled permanently and brought their families to join them. By contrast, the southern member states, such as EU founding member Italy, but also Portugal, Spain (both of whom joined in 1986) and Greece (joined in 1981), did not become attractive to immigrants until the 1980s. For a long time they regarded themselves as transit countries at the gates of Europe. The new member states in the east and southeast of the EU had essentially been emigration countries since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but since joining the EU in 2004 and 2007 they have rapidly developed into receiving countries, even though some of them currently still record more emigrants than immigrants. Although some of these countries already have considerable foreign minorities in their resident population, for the most part they still regard themselves primarily as transit countries for migrants from all over the world seeking to try their luck in Western Europe.
Altogether there are about 28.861.974 foreigners living today in the EU member states (5.8% of the total population). Of these, 14.426.000 (2.9%) are citizens of third countries. The main countries of origin vary from one member state to another and are, to a large extent, a reflection of the individual EU states' historical experiences and cultural contacts.
Since as early as 1992, immigration has been the most significant source of population growth in the European Union. In 2007, immigration made up 80% of population growth compared with natural factors (births less deaths). In that same year, net immigration across the EU comprised 1.9 million persons from a total of 497 million living in the EU; the birth surplus (excess of births over deaths) was just 483,000 people. The percentage of population growth made up by immigration has increased continually since the mid 1980s, and so forms a central factor in the battle against the ageing of the European communities.