By the end of the century, the population of Central and Eastern Europe can be halved. The latest forecast for 2100 published by the scientific journal The Lancet is another source that puts the region in the fastest depopulating position in the world. This will cause serious disturbances in the labor market, difficulties in financing public services, a reduction in investment and economic growth, and, therefore, will weaken the geopolitical power of the region. Depopulation is becoming one of the most important development challenges facing this part of Europe.
Great depopulation. The new forecast for the global population by the end of the century, published in The Lancet in July 2020, is the result of research by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The forecast’s main conclusion is the break with the previously anticipated continued growth of the global population. The new projections assume that the global population will reach a peak of 9.7 billion in 2064 and then fall to 8.8 billion by the end of the century, which will be the result of a fall in fertility rates on a global scale.
At the same time, these studies have shown a worrying prediction of the demography of Central and Eastern Europe. This region may be the fastest depopulation in the world. The forecast is that the population is decreasing from 325 million inhabitants to just 186 million in 2100, excluding Russia from 179 million to 80 million. This means a 43% decrease, not including Russia – 55% (!).
The research conducted by specialists from Washington University is not the first to alert to the potential demographic disaster in the region. For example, the latest United Nations forecasts show that, in ten countries of the world with the fastest rate of population decline by 2100, as many as eight are countries of Central and Eastern Europe, three of which are members of the European Union: Bulgaria, Croatia and Lithuania. However, the latest projections of American scientists are extremely pessimistic.
The University of Washington indicates a possible population decline in the new EU countries by 55% by 2100, the UN by 34%, and in Eurostat’s forecasts published in April 2020 by 24%. In comparison, in the older EU countries, the decline predicted by the University of Washington is 23%, by the UN 13%, and by Eurostat only 2%. Moreover, many of the old EU countries can achieve an increase in population (in all surveys in “plus” are Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Sweden). No country in Central and Eastern Europe can count on increasing its population, regardless of the author of future scenarios.
From the Baltic States to the Balkans. According to the University of Washington’s forecasts, Latvia is to experience the greatest decline among the countries of the region; in percentage terms, the forecast decline is 78% from 1.95 million to only 430 thousand. The populations of the other Baltic States can also decrease significantly: Lithuania by 48% – from 2.85 million to 1.47 million – and Estonia by 37% – from 1.21 million to 820 thousand.
However, the depopulation in the Baltic States is not a new problem. Over the last three decades, the population has decreased by about one fifth. This phenomenon was particularly exacerbated after the USSR's dissolution in the early 1990s and then after the Baltic States joined the EU in 2004. At that time, a wave of emigrants from this region left for Western Europe, mainly young people. Their loss means a decline in children being born, with the already low fertility rate, which most developed countries are facing.
The developments in the Balkan countries were similar. Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia are currently at the forefront of the countries whose population is declining at the fastest rate and in which the proportion of migrants is one of the highest in the EU. The “brain drain”, the departure of the best-qualified specialists abroad, has caused serious problems in the labor market, especially after accession. And it looks even worse. Bulgaria is forecast to reduce the population by 63% from 7.05 million to 2.62 million inhabitants, Croatia by 62% from 4.28 million to 1.62 million, Romania by 60% from 19.43 million to 7.77 million.
Demographic problems on such a scale have so far been avoided by the Visegrad Group countries. This applies especially to the Czech Republic and, to a certain extent, Slovakia, the first of which has managed to achieve the required level of development and, thereby, to protect itself from the great wave of emigration. As a result, these two countries are the only ones in the region to have had a small population growth over the last three decades. Poland and Hungary reached small increases at that time, within a few percent limit. However, this is expected to change soon; according to forecasts, the population will not bypass the Visegrad Group countries. Among them, Poland is expected to fall by 60% from 38.39 million to just 15.42 million inhabitants. The next is Slovakia, with a 53% decrease from 5.42 million to 2.56 million, Hungary with 47% from 9.73 million to 5.2 million, and the Czech Republic with 36% from 10.5 million to 6.73 million.
Data relating to countries in Eastern Europe are also not encouraging. For example, in Ukraine, the population is projected to decline by 61% from 44.69 million to 17.55 million, in Belarus by 42% from 9.49 million to 5.53 million, and in Russia by 27%, from 146.19 million to 106.45 million.
With repertoire. The decline in the population and the related changes in age structure, especially aging, have profound negative consequences. These are problems in the labor market related to the labor shortages, difficulties in financing public services, especially health care and pensions, and the reduction of investment and economic growth, which translates into geopolitical power.
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe facing these challenges should address them. One way is to have a pro-natalist policy that includes a wide range of tools to increase birth rates. In this regard, the countries of the region should follow the Western and Northern Europe’s models, such as France or Sweden’s, which have become, to some extent, a remedy to demographic problems. This applies especially to those measures which help parents combine work and childcare. These solutions are increasingly being implemented in Central and Eastern Europe, although their progress varies from country to country. Estonia can be the model of good practice among the countries in the region, which – according to a UNICEF report – leads one of the best family-friendly policies in the world. This includes, among others, fully paid one and a half years of maternity leave or high-quality pre-school education – which in Estonia is intended for children of 18 months to 7 years of age. As a result, the fertility rate increased from 1.28 in 1998 to 1.70 in 2010.
Another option is an open immigration policy, although most countries of the region have not seen it as a compensatory strategy for years. The desire to maintain a linguistic and culturally homogeneous society has been above the economic, fiscal, and geopolitical risks of population decline. In many countries of the region, this position remains valid, but the possibility that these elections will be revised if pro-natalist policies do not deliver the desired results is not excluded.
The discussion of demographic change is not only conducted at the national level but also at the European Union level. On 17 June 2020, the European Commission adopted a Report on the Impact of Demographic Change in Europe. The report draws attention to the differences between countries and regions and opens a discussion on how to support these areas.
Conclusions. The risk of a decline in Central and Eastern Europe’s population falling by half only until the end of the century makes depopulation one of the region’s most important development challenges. Reversing the two negative trends affecting most of these countries for three decades, i.e., negative natural growth and negative migration balances, requires action by countries on many issues.
Firstly, countries must pursue an active pro-natalist policy and, more generally, family-friendly policies that will improve the conditions for the child-bearing and child-rearing and thus stimulate the growth of their birth rates. Secondly, they should pursue an open migration policy that could offset the decline in the population. Thirdly, and finally, to halt the exodus of young people abroad in search of jobs and greater opportunities, countries should strive to create the best possible living conditions for their citizens.
 S. E. Vollset, E. Goren, C.-W. Yuan et al. Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study, Lancet 2020, www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30677-2/fulltext#seccestitle310 [date of access: 17.08.2020].
 Data refer to 2017.
 United Nations, 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects, www.population.un.org/wpp/ [date of access: 17.08.2020].
 Database – Eurostat, www.ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/database?node_code=proj [date of access: 17.08.2020].
 UNICEF (2019), Are the world’s richest countries family friendly?, www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/Family-Friendly-Policies-Research_UNICEF_%202019.pdf [date of access: 19.08.2020].