BERLIN Europe is facing a demographic crisis caused by a declining and ageing population and it will be impossible to prevent some rural areas becoming completely deserted, German population experts said on Thursday.
German researchers from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development said that without immigration, the EU's population will shrink by some 52 million people to 447 million by 2050.
The experts, who published a comprehensive report on Europe's demographic future in cooperation with GEO nature magazine, pinpointed areas in Poland, eastern Germany, northern Spain and southern Italy which could be emptied out.
On a national basis, Iceland, Switzerland and Sweden were demographically best positioned for the future while Romania, Bulgaria and Poland faced the biggest problems, according to the researchers who used 24 indicators to draw their conclusions.
With an average of 1.5 children per woman in the EU, each new generation is 25 percent smaller than the previous one, said the report. By 2050 the average age in the 27-member bloc will rise by 10 years, which raises concern among some economists.
"A declining number of working people combined with higher spending on pensions and health provision make it more difficult for us to compete with our rivals in other, faster-growing regions of the world," said the experts from GEO magazine.
The experts warned that some pockets of Europe were doomed.
"There will certainly be areas which people will abandon altogether in coming years -- in northern Spain, southern Italy, Bulgaria and eastern Germany," said Reiner Klingholz, Director of the Berlin Institute.
"There are reasons why people are leaving, you can't force them back," he said, saying the best policy would be to let some areas decline and others, such as bigger towns, grow.
Depopulation has blighted eastern Germany. Driven largely by bleak job prospects, more than 1.5 million people, mostly women, have left the region since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Wolves have even returned to some of the vacant space.
Klingholz noted, however, that having more space to plant trees could help the country fight climate change.
"You can use empty areas and should not necessarily artificially support them with subsidies when you know it won't work," said Klingholz.
The experts said countries battling depopulation and falling birth rates, including Germany and eastern European states, should emulate policies in Sweden and Iceland to develop a skilled work force and encourage people to have children.
They also stressed the importance of immigration.
"This means immigration is needed, there is no alternative," said Klingholz, noting that immigration had helped Britain and Ireland offset demographic trends and gain economically.
The experts said that aside from immigration, states like Germany needed to introduce better education and family policies.
"Sweden would be a good model," said Klingholz, noting it has one of Europe's highest birth rates and one of the highest proportion of women in work due to subsidies and child care facilities. He also praised its education system which resulted in a highly skilled work force.