Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second most common cause of death due to cancer causing death in Europe, accounting for more than 200,000 deaths per year. Prognosis strongly depends on stage at diagnosis, and the disease can be cured in most cases if diagnosed at an early stage. We aimed to assess trends and recent developments in 5-year relative survival in European countries, with a special focus on age, stage at diagnosis and anatomical cancer subsite. Data from 25 population-based cancer registries from 16 European countries collected in the context of the EUROCARE-4 project were analyzed. Using period analysis, age-adjusted and age-specific 5-year relative survival was calculated by country, European region, stage and cancer subsite for time periods from 1988–1990 to 2000–2002. Survival substantially increased over time in all European regions. In general, increases were more pronounced in younger than in older patients, for earlier than for more advanced cancer stages and for rectum than for colon cancer. Substantial variation of CRC survival between European countries and between age groups persisted and even tentatively increased over time. There is a huge potential for reducing the burden of CRC in Europe by more widespread and equal delivery of existing options of effective early detection and curative treatment to the European population.