As China’s demographic course reverses for the first time since 1961, with births falling by almost 10 percent in 2022, Europe faces at least one certainty in this regard: one in three citizens lives in a region that has experienced a population decline over the past decade. Migration has failed to mitigate the decline in southern and rural areas, and deaths have exceeded births in many countries. Eurostat estimates that 190,000 fewer children will be born in 2030 than in 2020. However, not all nations will end the decade in the negative.
The territorial disparities within the European Union, highlighted by the European Commission in the Eighth Report on Economic, Social and Territorial Cohesion , are also seen in birth trends from 2010 to 2021 across the 27 Member States. Il Sole 24 Ore compiled Eurostat data and supplemented them with the most recent national statistic. If the cradle is the “natural” engine of demographic recovery, the research confirms, few so far have managed to avoid the trap of a collapsing youth population.
The map of falling birth rates shows the rate of newborns per thousand inhabitants, which is currently much lower in the Mediterranean regions compared to the rest of Europe, though things could still change over the next few years. Population projections for 2030, based on long-term averages, show that the trend in births per European region and the incidence of newborns (children under one year old) is expected to fall especially sharply in Eastern European countries.
Fertility rates in the 27 Member States
According to the latest available data, Italy is now among the least fertile countries in Europe, along with Spain and Malta, with fewer than 1.3 children per woman. And if we look at the birth rate, Italy is right at the bottom, with 6.8 births per thousand residents in 2021, compared to the European average of 9.1. Negative records are also confirmed by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) estimates for 2022: last year saw the consolidation of the downward trend, which has continued without interruption since 2010.
While the demographic winter keeps getting colder in countries such as Italy, others have managed to turn the tide over the past decade: nine out of 27 Member States record a rising fertility rate.
Among the European countries where the fertility rate rose sharply between 2010 and 2021 are Hungary, which went from 1.25 to 1.59 children per woman, and the Czech Republic, which went from 1.51 to 1.83. The latter has reached the record historically held by France, where the rate has been falling in recent years. Also worth noting is Germany, where women went from having 1.39 children to 1.58 on average.
The fertility rate is higher in European countries that have invested more in welfare and work-life balance policies in recent years. France and Sweden are the two most interesting cases. Despite having very different welfare models, there is an ongoing focus in both countries on balancing work and family responsibilities. France has so far been a solid example of family-friendly policy, while the latter is more like an evolving experiment. Finland also has its own peculiar path in this regard, with a pronounced drop before the health crisis, but it is also the country that saw fertility fall the least during the pandemic, as well as a more evident reversal of the trend from 2020 onwards.
Only three countries managed to end 2021 with a higher birth rate than 2010: Germany (+15.7 percent), Hungary (+7.8 percent) and Austria (+2.1 percent). This means more children are being born in these countries today than at the beginning of the last decade.
The challenge to increase birth rates
For a stable population, excluding migration, a fertility rate above two is required to ensure a natural turnover. The last time this indicator was so high in the EU was in 1975. That's why, in the face of a structural decline in the population of childbearing age, it is crucial to investigate how these countries have managed to increase the average number of births.
This is especially true for countries like Italy, which have put pro-birth policies at the center of government activity. Italy has created an ad hoc ministry and announced targeted measures: the budget law for 2023 has strengthened the single allowance for children up to one year of age and for large families with young children. It grants an extra month of paid parental leave with 80 percent of salary; and the government is currently considering the possibility of including a "family quotient" in the tax system.
How the tide was turned
In several Eastern European countries birth rates had fallen well below the replacement level, but then rose again. The most effective short-term measures were those signalling direct, concrete economic support for families, but for long-term results there also needs to be continued strengthening of welfare and services.
In Hungary the fertility rate has increased more than anywhere else in Europe, rising from 1.25 children per woman to 1.59 in 2021. The Hungarian government aims to reach a ratio of 2.1 by 2030. According to demographic projections, this target is unrealistic, but some progress has nevertheless been made. The Office for National Statistics, however, recently announced that 2022 will be the fifth year in Hungarian history to end with fewer than 90,000 births, breaking a positive trend that has persisted since 2012. The fertility rate will probably fall too. The data has prompted Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to announce new measures, such as a tax cut for women under 30 with children.
The German Federal Statistical Office also noted a decline in births in 2022 (falling by about 7 percent from 2021), even though the population continues to grow thanks to immigration. The population structure, with fewer and fewer young people, is a clear factor, but the effects of the pandemic are too: the great social and economic uncertainty has caused many couples to postpone the decision to bring a child into the world. So in Germany, although the young adult demographic is in sharp decline, positive effects on birth rates are the result of a combination of family policies and the ability to attract and manage migration of people in working and reproductive age. Over the past decade, the country has mostly relied on these two levers and, as a result, births have increased significantly, whereas in Eastern European countries the birth rates have been stable or seen limited variation.
There is also a positive trend in the Czech Republic, where the average age of new mothers in the past five years has dropped from 30.7 to 28.8. However – while remaining above the European average – the 2022 fertility rate is expected to fall in. Romania and Denmark are not far from the top, but - like the rest of Europe - their populations are ageing.
The challenge across Europe is to delay the explosion of a demographic bomb. Mediterranean countries, particularly, seem to have entered a spiral of quantitative and qualitative collapse of the youth population. This, in turn, diminishes the region's chances of future development and prosperity. A major and pressing priority for these territories is establishing an effective plan of action through which demographic transformations and young people are placed at the centre of public policies.
Signs of such ambitions are visible in Spain and Portugal, where there investments in family policies are growing. After so many years of declining population, Portugal has just announced a 5 percent increase in births in 2022. For a country that has lost more than 200,000 inhabitants in ten years, this is for sure an encouraging sign.