The UK in a European context

This article – the latest in the UK Perspectives series – presents interactive charts on the UK’s population and economy in a European context, illustrating how it compares with the other 27 member states of the European Union (EU).

The charts presented here use the latest data published by Eurostat1 as this allows direct comparison between the EU countries. More recent data for the UK – including migration, gross domestic product (GDP) and employment – has been published by ONS. The latest data for the UK, as well as a range of additional sources and information, can be accessed from the related links.


The UK had the third largest population in the EU in 2014

On 1 January 2014, Germany had the largest population2 of the EU countries (80.8 million people) – followed by France (65.9 million), the UK (64.3 million), Italy (60.8 million), Spain (46.5 million) and Poland (38.5 million).

These 6 countries accounted for approximately 70% of the EU’s total population, with the UK alone comprising 13% of the total EU population.

The UK had the fourth highest population density (263 people per square kilometre) of the EU countries in 2012, and was most similar to Germany (229 people per sq km). Malta had the highest at 1,327 people per sq km – more than double that of the Netherlands in second place (497 people per sq km) and third placed Belgium (367 people per sq km).

Italy, Germany and Greece had the highest old-age dependency ratio in the EU in 2013

The old-age dependency ratio (OADR) is a measure of the number of people aged 65 and over for every 100 people of working age (15–64). A higher OADR implies that there are more people aged 65 and over relative to people of working age. When comparing the OADR across EU countries, please note the state pension age (SPA) across the EU differs, affecting the proportion of people aged 65 and over who may be employed.

The UK’s OADR is broadly average for the EU at 26.4, or approximately 1 older person to every 4 people of working age. Italy has the highest OADR at 32.7, which equates to approximately 1 older person for every 3 people of working age. Germany and Greece also have relatively high OADR. Slovakia has the lowest OADR at 18.4, or approximately 1 older person to every 5 people of working age.

The OADR ratio is affected by fertility, net migration and life expectancy, and is an important driver of public spending – since there is likely to be increased demand for health services and pensions as the population ages.


The UK had the second highest level of long-term immigration in the EU in 2012

A long-term migrant is someone who changes their country of residence for a period of at least 12 months. Net migration is the difference between the number of long-term immigrants coming to a country and the number of long-term emigrants leaving a country.

The 6 EU countries with the largest populations (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain and Poland) also experienced the highest levels of long-term immigration in 2012. Germany had the highest (592,000), followed by the UK (498,000) and Italy (351,000).

Overall, 15 EU countries recorded positive values for net migration (immigration greater than emigration) in 2012. Once again, the countries with the highest positive net migration were Germany (+352,000), Italy (+245,000) and the UK (+177,000). These flows were equivalent to 0.4% of the total population in both Germany and Italy, and 0.3% in the UK.

Spain recorded the highest level of long-term emigration in 2012 (447,000), followed by the UK (321,000) and France (288,000). 13 EU countries had negative values for net migration (emigration greater than immigration) in 2012, with Spain (-143,000), Poland (-58,000) and Greece (-44,000) the top three. These flows were equivalent to 0.3%, 0.2% and 0.4% of the resident population in Spain, Poland and Greece respectively.

The latest UK migration estimates are available from ONS.


The UK’s GDP per capita was 9% higher than the EU average in 2013

Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is a measure of a country’s productivity. The figures are expressed in purchasing power standards (PPS), with the EU average set to equal 100. A value for GDP per capita greater than 100 is therefore above the EU average, and vice versa. The use of PPS means figures are adjusted to remove differences in price levels between countries. This allows comparisons between countries within each year, although they should not be used to make comparisons over time.

The UK’s GDP per capita was 9% higher than the EU average in 2013, and similar to that of France. Luxembourg was an outlier with the highest GDP per capita (with a value of 257 in 2013, making it more than 2.5 times the EU average).

The countries with the lowest GDP per capita were generally the newer members of the EU which have joined since 20043, with Bulgaria the lowest at just under half (45%) of the EU average.

The UK’s annual GDP growth rate was joint 6th highest in the EU in 2013

The calculation of the annual growth rate of GDP volume allows comparisons, both over time and between economies of different sizes. For measuring the growth rate of GDP in terms of volumes, the GDP at current prices is valued in the prices of the previous year. Therefore, price movements will not inflate the growth rate.

In 2013, the UK had the joint sixth highest growth rate in GDP of the EU countries – growing 1.7% compared with the previous year. It was the second highest growth rate among member states that joined the EU before 2004.4

Generally, higher GDP growth rates were experienced by smaller EU member states. 11 EU countries experienced negative GDP growth rates in 2013.

The UK’s government debt-to-GDP ratio is slightly above the EU average

Gross debt is a measure of how much a government owes at a point in time. The debt-to-GDP ratio frames the value of this debt relative to the size of the economy. However, there are many factors that determine the sustainability of national debt – including interest rates, term structures of debt and the currency in which it is denominated, as well as wider economic conditions. Therefore, a debt-to-GDP ratio that is sustainable in one country may not be sustainable in another.

At 87.2% of GDP, the UK had one of the higher general government gross debt-to-GDP ratios in the EU in 2013. There were 6 member states with debt-to-GDP ratios greater than 100% of GDP and 9 with ratios below 50%.

Comparing these debt ratios in 2013 with 2004 shows that debt has increased relative to GDP for the majority of countries where data is available. In 2004, there were 2 countries (Italy and Belgium) with debt-to-GDP ratios at or close to 100%, while the UK had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 40.2%, making it one of 16 countries with a debt-to-GDP ratio at or below 50%.

The latest UK GDP estimate is available from ONS.

Employment rates are relatively high in the UK

The employment rate is an indicator of economic conditions (in addition to country-specific factors) in the labour market.

The UK was one of 10 EU member states where the employment rate of 15–64 year olds was lower in 2013 than it had been in 20045. However, the UK still had one of the highest employment rates of the EU countries in 2013, at 70.5% and was one of only 6 EU countries with an employment rate greater than 70% of the active population.

Sweden had the highest employment rate, at 74.4%, while Greece was the only country with less than half of its active population in work, at 48.8%.

The latest UK employment rate estimates are available from ONS.

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