One of the most pressing phenomena in recent decades in Europe’s rural areas is population decline. This article summarises how the national sustainable development strategies (NSDS) and the national rural development programmes (NRDP) of the European Union (EU) Member States conceptualise processes of depopulation of rural areas. It gives a systematic overview of the main factors of population decline identified in the strategies and programmes and lists the objectives set and measures proposed by these documents. Although the majority of documents identify the depopulation process and all consider it to be a negative phenomenon, there are no commonly accepted objectives or principles regarding the desired extent of demographic changes in rural areas: the aims vary between ‘reducing’, ‘stopping’, ‘stabilising’ and ‘reversing’ the depopulation of rural areas. Most of the measures proposed against the population declined in NRDPs are linked to Axis 3 of the EU rural development pillar. Regarding sustainability, an upcoming question is the ecological consequences of rural depopulation. The authors suggest that rural policies need a stronger theoretical basis to respond this question and that future national sustainable development strategies should pay more attention to the problem.