European forests are an important carbon sink; however, the relative contributions to this sink of climate, atmospheric CO2 concentration ([CO2]), nitrogen deposition and forest management are under debate. We attributed the European carbon sink in forests using ORCHIDEE-FM, a process-based vegetation model that differs from earlier versions of ORCHIDEE by its explicit representation of stand growth and idealized forest management. The model was applied on a grid across Europe to simulate changes in the net ecosystem productivity (NEP) of forests with and without changes in climate, [CO2] and age structure, the three drivers represented in ORCHIDEE-FM. The model simulates carbon stocks and volume increment that are comparable – root mean square error of 2 m3 ha−1 yr−1 and 1.7 kg C m−2 respectively – with inventory-derived estimates at country level for 20 European countries. Our simulations estimate a mean European forest NEP of 175 ± 52 g C m−2 yr−1 in the 1990s. The model simulation that is most consistent with inventory records provides an upwards trend of forest NEP of 1 ± 0.5 g C m−2 yr−2 between 1950 and 2000 across the EU 25. Furthermore, the method used for reconstructing past age structure was found to dominate its contribution to temporal trends in NEP. The potentially large fertilizing effect of nitrogen deposition cannot be told apart, as the model does not explicitly simulate the nitrogen cycle. Among the three drivers that were considered in this study, the fertilizing effect of increasing [CO2] explains about 61% of the simulated trend, against 26% to changes in climate and 13% only to changes in forest age structure. The major role of [CO2] at the continental scale is due to its homogeneous impact on net primary productivity (NPP). At the local scale, however, changes in climate and forest age structure often dominate trends in NEP by affecting NPP and heterotrophic respiration.