Emerging Europe’s demographic changes cement a political culture that perpetuates youth emigration

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Emerging Europe is currently facing an existential crisis – depopulation.

According to UN population projections for 2020-2050, 15 of the 20 countries which will experience the most drastic decline in their populations are in emerging Europe. Since 1989 the region has suffered from mass youth emigration, declining birth rates and urbanisation that hollows out rural areas. This impacts much more than immediate regional demography, penetrating not only the economy but political systems themselves.

In a recent meeting with the European Council president, Charles Michel, Croatia’s prime minister Andrej Plenković labelled the region’s depopulation as an “existential problem”, and he is not wrong.

Central and Eastern Europe is a victim not just of shrinking but also aging populations. Notably, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria are all expected to experience a population decline of over 20 per cent in the coming years, with Bulgaria’s population predicted to drop to just 5.2 million by 2050 from its current 7.1 million.

Interestingly, if East Germany was counted as a separate entity, it would also be on the list, suggesting that the problem is one shared by all former communist countries. Since 1989, the region has been hailed for its resilience and ability to overcome decades of communist rule, and quick assimilation into global markets. But since the 1990s, emerging Europe has lost six per cent of its collective population, a whopping 18 million people: this at a time when the global population has seen an increase of 30 per cent.

For emerging Europe, the narrative is rapidly shifting from one of resilience to survival.

Many nations in the region have birthrates comparable to those of advanced western economies but lag behind in GDP. This, combined with mass youth emigration to Western Europe, has left many nations with a distorted age ratio. 

As fewer young people leads to fewer opportunities for those who remain, the exodus effect quickly snowballs. Generally, more and more of national budgets becomes tied up in social care and pensions and there are fewer resources which can be allocated for education and innovation. Economic prospects for young people become less attractive and many who do have an opportunity to move elsewhere will, citing more secure job prospects, creating both a push and pull factor of migration.

A youthful population is required for an expanding labour force, and many industries across the region, from Moldovan wine to the North Macedonian automotive sector, are struggling to fill vacant jobs. 

While come countries, notably Poland, which is now home to around one million Ukrainians, have turned to neighbouring states for workers this creates a two tier society of citizens and non-citizens in which power is preserved in the older ethnic majority despite the emergence of a more diversified society.

This can have the effect of disenfranchising youth and creating resentment. 

Politically, power therefore rests disproportionately with in an ageing population which has a significant impact on political culture. In a system where more voters are retired and workers, many of whom are foreign, lack the right to vote, democracy will lose some of its importance. 

This phenomena is not unique to emerging Europe, as age is consistently one of the most significant voting divides. Brexit was mostly supported amongst depopulated and aging areas, and a similar narrative can be seen for voters of Donald Trump in the United States and for Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord in Italy. 

These demographical voting patterns can be closely correlated with the rise of illiberalism both in the region and worldwide.

Emerging Europe’s democratic performance is slowing and to overlook its shifting demography would be problematic. Older citizens ultimately vote differently to the youth, and expecting them to vote otherwise is difficult. How do you persuade someone to sacrifice their immediate benefit for future generations, particularly if many are leaving?

Moreover, many voters of more liberal parties are exactly the same as those who have emigrated and hence lack motivation in voting for a country where they no longer live. This creates dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement amongst the youth and a resentment that further fuels polarisation and tribal politics, one on which populists thrive. Figures like Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński employ rhetoric that appeals to conservative traditional values and frequently rail against the diversification of society or integrating migrants.

However, governments are making some effort to reverse the causes of depopulation. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PIS) has put forward a number of policies – such as no tax for those under 26 and social benefits for those with more children – in an attempt to reverse the brain drain. Bulgaria is trying to improve educational and economic opportunities to make staying more attractive than emigrating. Leaders overwhelmingly acknowledge that depopulation is an uphill challenge for their countries. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done to help reverse the UN projections, and a much greater emphasis needs to be placed on political discourse. 

Emerging Europe’s demographical changes not only impact the economy, but cement a political culture that perpetuates youth emigration. It is abundantly clear that policies and attitudes need to change. The clock is ticking.