UK Perspectives 2016: The UK in a European context

This article in the UK Perspectives series presents interactive charts illustrating how the UK population and economy compares with the other 27 member states of the European Union (EU).

The charts presented here use the latest data published by Eurostat1 as these allow direct comparison between the EU countries. More recent data for the UK – including international migration, gross domestic product (GDP) and employment – have 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 2015

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On January 1, 2015, Germany had the largest population2 of the EU countries (81.2 million people) – followed by France (66.4 million), the UK (64.9 million), Italy (60.8 million), Spain (46.4 million) and Poland (38.0 million).

These six 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 (266 people per square kilometre) of the EU countries in 2014, and was most similar to Germany (227 people per sq km). Malta had the highest at 1,352 people per sq km – more than double that of the Netherlands in second place (501 people per sq km) and 3rd placed Belgium (370 people per sq km).

Italy, Germany and Greece had the highest old-age dependency ratio in the EU in 2014

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 in 2014 was 27.0, which was broadly average for the EU and meant approximately one older person to every four people of working age. Italy had the highest OADR at 33.1, which equates to approximately one older person for every three people of working age. Germany and Greece also had relatively high OADR. Slovakia had the lowest OADR at 19.0, or approximately one older person to every five 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 2014

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The United Nations recommended definition of a long-term international 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 immigrants coming to a country and the number of emigrants leaving a country.

The six EU countries with the largest populations (Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain and Poland) also experienced the highest levels of long-term immigration in 2014. Germany had the highest (885,000), followed by the UK (632,000) and France (340,000).

Overall, 15 EU countries recorded positive values for net migration (immigration greater than emigration) in 2014. The countries with the highest positive net migration were Germany (+561,000), the UK (+313,000) and Italy (+141,000). These flows were equivalent to 0.7% of the total population in Germany, 0.5% in the UK and 0.2% in Italy.

Spain recorded the highest level of long-term emigration in 2014 (400,000), followed by Germany (324,000) and the UK (319,000). There were 13 EU countries with negative values for net migration (emigration greater than immigration) in 2014, with Spain (-95,000), Greece (-48,000) and Poland (-46,000) being the top 3. These flows were equivalent to 0.2%, 0.4% and 0.1% of the resident population in Spain, Greece and Poland respectively.

The latest UK international migration estimates are available from ONS.


The UK’s GDP per capita was 9% higher than the EU average in 2014

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Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is a measure of the economic output produced per person in the country. 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 above the EU average, and a value of GDP per capita below 100 is below the EU average. 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 the 10th highest in the EU in 2014, and was 9% higher than the EU average. This was comparable with France, where GDP was 7% higher than the EU average. Luxembourg was an outlier with the highest GDP per capita (with a value of 266 in 2014, 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 (47%) of the EU average.

The UK’s annual GDP growth rate was 13th highest in the EU in 2015

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 2015, the UK had the 13th highest growth rate in GDP of the EU countries – growing 2.3% compared with the previous year. It was the 5th highest growth rate among the 15 member states that joined the EU before 20044.

Ireland had the fastest GDP growth rate in the EU in 2015, at 7.8%. The only EU country that saw a reduction in GDP in 2015 was Greece (-0.2%).

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 89.2% of GDP, the UK had one of the higher general government gross debt-to-GDP ratios in the EU in 2015. There were five member states with debt-to-GDP ratios greater than 100% of GDP and nine with ratios below 50%. The highest debt-to-GDP ratio was for Greece, at 177%.

Comparing these debt ratios in 2015 with 2004 shows that debt has increased relative to GDP for the majority of countries where data are available. In 2004, there were two countries (Greece and Italy) with debt-to-GDP ratios of 100% or just over, while the UK had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 40.2%, making it one of 18 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 had the 5th highest employment rate of the EU countries in 20155, at 72.7%, and was one of eight EU countries with an employment rate greater than 70% of the active population.

Sweden had the highest employment rate in the EU, at 75.5%, while Greece had the lowest at 50.8%.

The latest UK employment rate estimates are available from ONS.

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