Southeast Europe’s major cities are emptying out

Southeast Europe’s major cities are emptying out
A derelict building in Varna, Bulgaria, which has lost 9% of its population in the last five years. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews March 19, 2024

The biggest cities in most of Southeast Europe’s EU members have seen a fall in their populations between 2018 and 2023, according to data compiled by the EU’s statistics office Eurostat. 

This is in contrast to a modest rise in population in the two biggest cities in Slovenia – the richest country in the region – and in Central Europeans countries such as Poland. 

The data showed that there was a fall in population between 2018 and 2023 in all but one of the cities in Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania between 2018 and 2023, even those that had previously experienced an increase in population. 

The exceptions were the Slovenian capital Ljubljana and second city Maribor.

Population changes in major Southeast European cities between 2003 and 2023. Source: Eurostat. 

The biggest declines in population were in the Bulgarian Black Sea port cities of Burgas and Varna, which has lost almost 9% of its population in five years. 

There were also sizeable declines in Romania’s Timisoara, despite the city becoming an important manufacturing hub, and Croatia’s second city Split. 

Of the Romanian cities included in the dataset, only Brasov saw its population inch up during the five-year period. 

The decline cannot be attributed wholly to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as in several cities the population decline continued into 2022 and 2023. 

In line with a trend seen across the emerging Europe region, countries in Southeast Europe are experiencing long-term population decline due to a combination of low birth rates and mass emigration, mainly to richer West European countries. 

However, as economies in the region become more prosperous, they are increasingly seeing inward migration as well, both from poorer countries in the near neighbourhood and from further afield including South and Southeast Asia. 

Slovenia, for example, has seen its population increase in recent years due to inward migration mainly from poorer ex-Yugoslav countries. 

The biggest urban area in the region is Bucharest with a population of just under 2.3mn in 2023, followed by Sofia (1.6mn) and Zagreb (1.2mn). 

These are far smaller than the biggest in the EU, all of which are in Western Europe, led by Paris with 12.4mn and Madrid with 6.9mn. 

Over the five years from 2018 to 2023, the steepest population increases among the EU’s biggest cities were in Barcelona and Madrid.