The populations of farmland birds in Europe declined markedly during the last quarter of the 20th century, representing a severe threat to biodiversity. Here, we assess whether declines in the populations and ranges of farmland birds across Europe reflect differences in agricultural intensity, which arise largely through differences in political history. Population and range changes were modelled in terms of a number of indices of agricultural intensity. Population declines and range contractions were significantly greater in countries with more intensive agriculture, and significantly higher in the European Union (EU) than in former communist countries. Cereal yield alone explained over 30% of the variation in population trends. The results suggest that recent trends in agriculture have had deleterious and measurable effects on bird populations on a continental scale. We predict that the introduction of EU agricultural policies into former communist countries hoping to accede to the EU in the near future will result in significant declines in the important bird populations there.