Eurostat, the European statistical office, recently released data showing that in 2016 there were 5,148,162 babies born in the European Union, pushing the fertility rate up slightly for the first time in several years. This was good news for an area of the world better known for less auspicious demographic factors (such as an aging population).
While the 2016 increase in the number of births was only 0.88% over the previous year, it is positive and welcome. The same year, the EU fertility rate rose to 1.60—a level not seen since 2010—up from 1.57 the previous year. The fertility rate had reached a low point of 1.55 in 2013.
Some longer-term factors may have taken a turn for the positive. The number of women in the 26-30 prime childbearing-age range has grown and may have been a consideration in the rise in births. European young women have been having a first child later as more of them pursue higher education and subsequent employment—apparently the new norm. The 2016 data confirmed this trend as the average (mean) mother’s age when delivering her firstborn was 29 (ranging from 26 in Bulgaria to 31 in Italy).
Despite the positive news of births and fertility, no European country is at population replacement level, which is considered by demographers to be 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age. Until a few years ago France, Ireland, and Iceland were slightly above replacement level. No longer. In 2016 their fertility rates stood at 1.92, 1.81, and 1.74, respectively. (All three fell below replacement level in 2012-2013.) The five Nordic countries (including non-EU Norway and Iceland), known for generous parental-leave policies, have generally experienced the highest fertility rates in Europe, albeit below replacement level.
Eleven of the 28 EU countries recorded fertility rates above the EU average, led by France, Sweden, and Ireland. While the Irish are known for their large families, the latest release of EU data contained this startling statement: “One out of 10 births in Finland was to a mother who already had at least three children.” While Finland held the primacy, Ireland was second with one out of nine.
Given the rising number of immigrants coming into the EU from the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa, one might ask whether the newcomers primarily account for the rise in births. This is indeed the case in some of the countries where a breakdown in the data is available.
In Germany, the 2016 fertility rate was 1.60, the highest recorded rate since 1973 according to German sources. The fertility rate for German women was only 1.46 whereas the rate for foreign women was 2.28. Data for Italy show a similar distinction: The fertility rate for Italian women was 1.26 while that for foreign women was 1.97. Not all countries provide this breakdown of data. Foreign women residing in the EU do tend to have higher fertility rates, and even though they account for a small proportion of the total number of women in each country, their presence can move up a country’s average, as it has in Germany and Italy.
Some observers may wonder why fertility rates in Southern European countries are so low. In 2016 Spain, Italy, and Portugal had the lowest fertility rates in the EU (1.34 for both Spain and Italy and 1.36 for Portugal). While this may seem surprising (they are “Catholic” countries), part of the answer lies in emigration by young nationals.
The best example is Portugal (population 10 million) where 20 percent of Portuguese now live in another country, one of the highest ratios in the world. Large numbers of young, educated Portuguese have moved to more developed countries in search of work, especially after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, which hit Portugal especially hard. Some of the most educated young persons in Italy as well have emigrated in recent years for economic reasons. Today there are over five million Italians living outside Italy (population 61 million)—while there are more or less the same numbers of foreigners living in Italy.
Poland also has a low fertility rate: 1.39, but here too emigration is to blame. About two million people left the country in the decade after Poland (population 38 million) became a full member of the EU (May 1, 2004), moving mostly to more prosperous EU countries in search of better employment opportunities. These were primarily young adults who probably married and had their children in other countries.
While EU fertility has been below replacement since the 1970s, perhaps now with a new norm of more women having children later in life (compared with their mothers’ generation) more births will occur. However, the later in life that women start having children the less likely they are to have more than two. The 2016 demographic results were encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether the momentum will be sustained in future years.