Across Europe, there is a complex mosaic of urban population development. Characterized by great diversity and heterogeneity, this development does not follow a common pattern and cannot be attributed to specific regional trends (e.g. Eastern or Western European geographic location, or post‐socialist, old industrial or developed capitalist economic models). In this article, we show how this mosaic can be explained, relating it to various driving forces and overarching processes. Using a multilevel approach and looking at the period 1991–2008, we identified various European city population growth or decline clusters; these indicated that urban population development does not necessarily follow strictly national lines. Further, we argue that similar clusters of growing and declining cities may occur within European countries as diverse as Poland and the UK. Overarching driving forces such as demographic change interfere with national specificity and the peculiarities of local settings. The most significant finding of this article is that overlapping driving forces currently lead in their interplay to diverging courses of urban population development on different spatial scales (and will probably continue to do so in future).