The Council of Europe says the continent's population has exceeded 800 million people. But the pan-European human rights and democracy body warns in its latest demographic report that the rate of growth is slowing and that many countries in Central and Eastern Europe are facing the double threat of dwindling birth rates and high emigration levels.
Prague, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Europe's population is still growing, but the growth is slowing down and remains uneven throughout the continent. This is the conclusion of a report issued by the Council of Europe (CE), which says the total number of Europeans at the beginning of 2002 was 817 million, an annual increase of more than 4 million people or 0.5 percent.
The report -- a survey of the 44 CE member states plus Belarus and Yugoslavia, titled "Recent Demographic Developments in Europe, 2002" -- says that most European countries still experience positive natural increase, or more births than deaths per 1,000 inhabitants.
Besides the natural increase, the annual population growth rate also includes net migration -- that is, more immigrants than emigrants per 1,000 inhabitants.
Liechtenstein, Turkey, and Ireland top the chart with growth rates of 1.99 percent, 1.83 percent, and 1.41 respectively.
On the other side of the scale are the countries that have seen negative population growth. Aidan Punch, chairman of the Council of Europe's Population Committee and one of the authors of the report, told RFE/RL it is former communist countries that are most affected by both natural decline and high emigration rates: "Now what we actually saw in the last year is both those components increasing. Admittedly, the natural increase is on the decline because in a lot of countries now the fertility rate is below replacement level -- in fact, [this is the case] in most member countries of the Council of Europe. And also, we're seeing aging populations, so we're seeing an increase in the number of deaths. But it's remarkable to actually look at those two components and where, in fact, the changes are occurring. And we see that it's mainly the countries in transition which are recording negative growth rates."
The report, which was published on 8 January, found that in 2001, 14 of the 44 CE member states experienced a negative natural growth rate. (In 1990, only three countries -- Hungary, Bulgaria, and Germany -- were in such a situation.)
Eleven of the 14 were ex-communist states which experienced the difficult transition period throughout the 1990s, and only three of them were European Union member states -- Germany, Sweden, and Italy. The worst natural growth rates were in Russia with -0.65 percent, Latvia with -0.57 percent, and Bulgaria with -0.56 percent.
The report warns that long-term natural population replacement is also under threat throughout Europe, with fertility rates, or the number of births per woman, dropping in a majority of countries under the 2.1 births necessary to ensure population replacement in the future. Turkey is the only CE member state where fertility rates exceed the replacement level, with 2.51 children per woman. Two other countries, Albania and Iceland, have reached levels of 2.1 and 2.08 children respectively.
Punch said again, it is the former communist countries where fertility is particularly low. "Fertility is very, very low indeed in countries such as [Armenia with 1.02, the Czech Republic with 1.1, and Slovakia, Latvia and Slovenia, which each have 1.2]. These are extremely low figures and one doesn't know, for instance, whether it is uncertainty about the future which is causing families or couples to postpone having children or whether it's a longer-term trend. These are issues which are under study at the moment in the Council of Europe," he said.
But experts say that while such trends are cause for concern, the decline in Europe's population overall has not yet reached a critical point, thanks to both natural increase in some countries and immigration, mostly from other continents, in others.
David Coleman, a professor of demography at Oxford University, told RFE/RL: "The often-cited point made in the media about Europe's declining population has not yet come to pass. And this is partly because there's still natural increase in a number of European countries -- that is, an excess of births over deaths. And it's also because those countries where there's not natural increase, as in the case of Germany and Italy, population is being sustained or even continues to grow because of high levels of international migration."
Coleman added that population figures must be treated with caution, since they do not include illegal migration: "Of that half-percent [of European] growth overall -- if that is the correct figure -- then clearly, the greater part of that half-percent growth is going to be from international migration rather than from natural increase, which is the minor part of the population increase. And that half-percent growth will not include illegal immigration."
Coleman said that illegal migration, by its very nature, remains very difficult to assess. But he says that estimates put the number of illegal immigrants who reach Europe annually at up to half a million.
Central and Eastern Europe are less affected by illegal migration, since they are still used mainly as transit routes for illegal migrants heading further west. The CE report found that of the eight countries which had a negative rate of net migration, seven were ex-communist states, with Armenia at -0.27, Latvia at -0.22, and Moldova at -0.09 topping the chart.
Coleman said Europe's population will continue to age as both birth and death rates drop, placing additional pressure on social and health care throughout the continent as the ratio of working people to pensioners drops.
Coleman believes fertility, rather than international migration, could alleviate the problem: "There's no demographic solution to population aging, although a more reasonable level of fertility would certainly make it easier to manage. And there's certainly no possibility of solving it by international migration, as some have proposed. You can indeed prevent population aging by international migration, but only at gigantic levels of inflow."
Coleman said that, for example, to preserve the present ratio of people of working age to pensioners in the EU, an annual inflow of some 14 million immigrants would be necessary for the next 50 years.
He said such a solution is preposterous, given that by 2050 the EU population would exceed the current populations of China and India put together -- that is, more than 2 billion people.
Aidan Punch of the CE believes that, in order to avoid such a scenario, European governments and organizations have a duty to come up with family-friendly policies in order to stimulate fertility and population replacement in the long run.