So there’s a map of Europe doing the rounds on the Twitters this morning, one which never ceases to fascinate me. There’s an extract of it above; the whole thing is shown below. It's from Eurostat, the European statistical agency, and it shows, basically, which bits of Europe are the richest.
The map breaks most of the continent into regions known as “NUTS 2 statistical units” (or, “Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics 2 statistical units” for long), and colour codes them by a measure of economic activity, using data for 2014. In this case it’s GDP per capita (how much wealth is produced), expressed in purchasing power standards, or PPS (basically, how much that wealth will buy you in that bit of the world).
All of which is a long way of saying that the blue-ish bits of the map are generating enough money to be richer than the EU-28 average, while the red-ish bits of the map are poorer than it.
Some caveats, before we look at the map. Firstly, in some ways, NUTS 2 regions are bloody stupid. London is split into five of the things, while the whole of the Republic of Ireland gets just two.
This isn’t as silly as it first sounds – the former has nearly twice the population of the latter – but it’s probably a bit misleading to imagine that the British capital can be broken down into five discrete economic units, or that the Republic of Ireland contains just two. So we should be wary about how literally we take this colour-scheme.
The other thing to remember is: GDP per capita doesn’t tell us everything. Transfer payments exist. Rich regions can and do support poorer ones – through the EU structural funds (we’re going to miss those), and through things like welfare systems within countries. What’s more, a region composed entirely of loaded retired people would, I suspect, look pretty bad on this map, while actually having fairly good living standards.
But that’s enough caveats spoiling our fun, what can we learn from the map?
Let’s start with the “well, duh” stuff. Firstly, there’s a definite east/west divide: the ex-communist countries of eastern Europe are by-and-large poorer than the capitalist ones of the west.
There’s possibly a north/south divide too, but this is less pronounced than you’d expect: parts of northern Spain and Italy are doing alright, while parts of the Nordic region, and – especially – large chunks of the British Isles, are not.
Some of this can be explained by the second predictable element: cities are, mostly, richer. In those southern countries, it’s the regions around Madrid, Barcelona and Rome that are doing best. In France it’s Paris, in Finland it’s Helsinki, in east Germany it’s Berlin. That blue island in the red sea of Romania is Bucharest.
So far, so predictable. But other things are more surprising.
For one thing, there’s a sort of arc of prosperity reading from Italy northwards. At first this looks like the blue banana megalopolis we’ve banged on about before – except it isn’t, because the reason it’s called a banana is it curves past the low countries into Britain. Which this doesn’t.
In fact, Britain doesn’t come out that well on this map. South central England, East Anglia, Cheshire and the north East of Scotland (Aberdeen, basically) are the only bits of the UK above the EU average. Even Essex and Kent – places not short of rich London commuters – come in more at than 10 per cent poorer.
The UK is not alone in division. Italy’s north-south divide is as well known as ours (only upside down), but we talk rather less about the fact France and Spain also have radically different economies depending on which bits of them you go to.
Oh, and it’s very sweet the way they’ve boxed out Liechtenstein just so they can tell us they don’t have any data.
As I said at the top, we should be wary of over-interpreting this, for all sorts of reasons. But is clear is that, for all the government’s talk of booming Britain and sclerotic Europe, the UK is substantially poorer than large chunks of the continent: western Germany, northern Italy, Scandinavia and the low countries.
But it’s fine because Brexit means Brexit and we’re apparently going to make a success of it.
So anyway, to sum up, I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.
You can see the whole map, with commentary from Eurostat, here.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.