The distribution of the European population has not been stable over long periods, but has shifted, both through differential birth and death rates and by migration.
At the beginning of the Christian era, the most densely populated part of Europe bordered the Mediterranean Sea. At the beginning of the 21st century Europe had the second highest overall population density of the continents, after Asia. The most heavily populated area was a belt beginning in England and continuing eastward through the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, and into European Russia. Northern Italy also had a high population density.
The average annual growth rate for the European population from 1985 to 1995 was only 0.28 percent; in the same period the population of Asia grew by 1.69 percent per year, and that of North America by 1.33 percent annually. By 2000 the population was actually decreasing. The overall population decline was due primarily to a low birth rate (10.2 births per 1,000 people in 2005 compared to 18.3 births per 1,000 people in South America). Europeans generally enjoy some of the longest average life expectancies at birth—some 75 years in most countries, compared with 64 years in India and less than 60 years in most countries of Africa.
Population movements, both voluntary and involuntary, have been a constant aspect of European life. In the late 20th century, two movements were particularly noteworthy—the migration of people seeking jobs as “guest workers” and the migration of persons from rural to urban areas. Italian, Yugoslav, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese workers (as well as some from Asian Turkey, Algeria, and other non-European areas) moved—mostly on a nonpermanent basis—to Germany, France, Switzerland, Britain, and other countries in search of jobs.
In addition, many Europeans moved within national boundaries from rural areas to cities. From 1950 to 1975, the population of Western Europe changed from roughly 70 to nearly 80 percent urban; that of Eastern Europe grew from 35 to 60 percent urban. On the other hand, far fewer Europeans left the continent than in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most people leaving Europe in the late 20th century migrated to South America, Canada, or Australia.
In most European countries the national capital is the largest city, but the continent has many additional cities of substantial size. Most European capitals have great economic and cultural significance and contain many noted historical sites. Among the most famous cities are Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, London, Madrid, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Rome, Stockholm, and Vienna.