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25th Anniversary series: Europe in decline?

October 28, 2015

For many years the best view to take of Europe has been as a declining share of the world’s population, economy and power. Can migration reverse this trend?

In our book “Beyond Crisis” we looked at the reasons that there would be no return to Business As Usual. One reason was the ratio of people over 65 to those under 15 in different parts of the world. Africa was at one end of the spectrum with a low dependency ratio and in addition had large numbers of under 15’s. Europe had low proportions under 15 and high over 65’s. The small number under 15 arises from two forces: decreasing family size – first, the move to the cities – in cities children are a cost rather than a source of labour – second, the increasing education of women which is also correlated with family size.


This means that Europe’s population is projected to be relatively static to 2040, (EU from 507 million to 526 million) compared with world growth from 7.4 billion to 9 billion.

Can Europe maintain its standard of living and/or any leadership in the world given this anticipated decline in population?

EU president Jean-Claude Juncker voiced his thoughts to the European Parliament, at the start of the Parliamentary Year in September 2015, that immigration could be a saviour of Europe.

Over the centuries, Europe has often seen migration of peoples seeking security, avoiding religious persecution, or because of food shortages. While since the 1940’s there have been waves of immigration – from Eastern Europe, from Turkey and the Middle East, from Asia, and from North Africa, the recent waves of migrants from Syria are qualitatively different. First the numbers are large and arriving over a short timeframe – projected up to millions rather than thousands. Second, many of them are educated professional men with their families.

The conflict in Syria and other parts of the Middle East is unlikely to be resolved in the short term, as the geo-political shifts following new sources of energy continue to cause disruption. Many of the 60 million displaced people as recently flagged by the UNHCR are in neighbouring lands to Europe: and the long-term trends are for these disruptions to increase and for people to seek to move to a place where they can be secure.

Currently the number of people living in the EU-28 who are citizens of non-member countries is 19.6 million while the number of people living in the EU-28 who were born outside of the EU is 33.5 million.

Juncker, in his speech to the Parliament, put the strong view that Europe had a history of accepting refugees, that in relation to the Syrian refugees, most were still in neighbouring countries to Syria, much poorer than Europe, and that refugees were good for economies. He thought that Europe should, on both moral grounds and for self-interest, welcome the migrants currently getting to Europe through Greece, who could contribute to Europe’s economy and society and prevent stagnation. The European Parliament was mostly politely receptive.

In SAMI’s recent work with the EC’s Research and Innovation Directorate, on Foresight to 2030, the impact of migration on the nature of cities was one of the main insights – much of the research on smart cities and cities of the future has assumed a homogeneous and engaged citizenry – and has not addressed the question of integration of ethnically different communities. For instance, migrants are clustered in cities –as in the Départment of Seine-Saint-Denis in France (population of 1.5 million), over half of young under 18 are or foreign origin, most from Africa, and Islam is the main religion.

The challenge for Europe in the short term is that increased resources are needed to manage the effect on services such as health, education and housing. In the medium term, the impact on the economy from large numbers of new workers should be positive. But Europe will certainly be a much more diverse place in 2040 than in 2015.

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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