The Europes

By Razib Khan | September 8, 2012 10:48 pm

Planet Money recently did a report on the difficulty of maintaining high economic productivity in southern Italy. I won’t rehash the specifics of the story, but, I think it is important to get a visual sense of just how large the contrast between the south and north of Italy is. Too often we speak of nation-states. Nation-states are real, and they are important, but they are often not comparable. Just like comparing the USA to Sweden is only marginally informative, so comparing a small nation like Ireland to a more substantial one like Italy is deceptive. Here is a 2008 regional GDP map with sub-national breakdowns. Though some of the values are certainly lower now (basically, everything outside of Germany and Sweden), the relationships still hold.

There has been a gap between the north and south of Spain and England, as well as the west and east of Germany, but none of these are of the same magnitude of what you see in Italy (for one, southern Italy is much more populous than eastern Germany).  Sicily and the southern provinces are the poorest regions of western Europe. In contrast, the area between Milan and Bologna in the north is among the wealthiest.

Here is a map of unemployment rates:



MORE ABOUT: Economics, Europe, Geography

Comments (19)

  1. Latinu

    Turkey is not in europe!!

  2. Ste

    The time period you use is at the top of the euro low interest rate inspired bubble among the piggies also.

    Eg Ireland has a 15% unemployment rate currently. Spain is at 25%.

    More recent data for umemployment at:

    Might be an unmarked one about the web also..

  3. One thing I didn’t realize until I saw the first map is that the Basque region is actually the most prosperous part of Spain. I also had thought that Poland and the Czech Republic were better-off than they actually are.

    If you want a country that’s pretty much at the same level of development in all regions, Sweden is your choice.

    Lastly, I am quite surprised that French Guyana is so underdeveloped, being the home of the European space center with its (undoubtedly) high paying jobs.

  4. Peter: and depending on how much the Basque autonomy is respected, they’ll continue being the most prosperous part of Spain!

  5. kiwi dave

    The Basque regions and Catalonia have long been the wealthiest parts of Spain. They industrialised early, while the rest of Spain (especially the Castilian heartland and Andalucia) were very backward. That (in addition to their unique cultures) was a major factor in the strong strain of Basque and Catalan separatism.

    The first map is interesting. The most surprising part was France: I had imagined that France would follow a similar pattern to Spain and Italy, with a wealthy north and backward south, but that does not seem to be the case. Certainly, in the first half of the 20th Century, northeastern France was a lot more advanced than the rest of the country (it was also more destroyed in the world wars). But other than a concentration in Paris (to be expected), the rest of the country is pretty even, with a higher-income patch in the south-east (probably related to the Cote d’Azur, Monaco etc. as well as the nearby Italian industrial heartland). Likely has something to do with a strongly redistributionist state.

    Lastly: the alps really are the economic heart of Europe (at least continental Europe). Remarkable.

  6. stupid latinu

    Turkey is in EUROPE !

  7. Very cool maps, especially the first one.

    What I find most surprising: northern Italy, western Austria, and southern Germany are a a cluster of wealth and southern Germany is more prosperous than even the western part of northern Germany. I did not expect that.

    See this Google map of Europe and switch between it and the maps above.

  8. Grey

    Partial correlation with the central wedge height distribution from a while back – although of course that could be either cause or effect or both or neither.

  9. Martyn

    Seems to me like you need to live in a capital city or near Switzerland. I’m currently living in Southern Germany and have family in the part of France close to the Swiss border. Many people in both places benefit from commuting across the border where the wages are much higher. I don’t know how strong a contributor that is to the Italian issues, though.

  10. Yes, I should have known otherwise, but I had always thought that the Basques were so restive because they were an underprivileged minority in Spain.

  11. #13, left-nationalist terrorism is often the luxury of the more privileged 😉 in any case, note that in sri lanka the tamils traditionally had the upper hand because of their greater integration into the british educational system (at least the ceylon tamils). so there are parallels there. though not in ireland. some people date the basque restiveness to attempts to revoke their traditional privileges starting in the 19th century (carlist war?).

  12. Eurologist

    …and southern Germany is more prosperous than even the western part of northern Germany. I did not expect that.


    Helmut Schmidt argues this is mostly so because a lot of large companies pulled out of Berlin and Saxony (and also today’s Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Sachsen-Anhalt) even before the end of WWII and moved to Bavaria.

    I would also include the fact that the former economic strength of NW Germany was in coal and steel – most of which is no longer in production. And except for ship building and trade, the North has traditionally been more agricultural, while the South (including Switzerland and Austria) has had a metallurgy / construction head start since Celtic times.

    As to the charts above, one should add that a lot of regions with supposedly high unemployment and low GDP have a strong black market and a higher level of corruption, which tends to further exaggerate the statistics.

  13. I would be curious to see comparable maps for the national at the state/province level (or better yet, the county level). The data is out there, and the areas where there s higher or lower per capita GDP are pretty much what you would expect, but I have little sense for the magnitude of regional differences in per capita GDP in North America v. those in Europe.

  14. pconroy

    @15, Eurologist,


    East Germany was mostly the former Prussia and Mechlenburg and after the Huguenots arrived and largely built and developed Berlin, was the most successful, enlightened and progressive region of Germany. Bavaria by contrast was a backwater. I’ve known many Germans and have German and Prussian in-laws and the saying used be: “Bayern Bauern” or that Bavarians were merely farmers – they used be considered like the Applacians are here in the US, but that all changed due to WWII, and the need to protect vital factories, and so move them from the Eastern and Western fronts to the South, which then bordered Mussolini’s Italy.

  15. pconroy

    As for the Basques, these canny folks employed British industrialist very early on to develop mining and industry and brought the know-how of the Industrial Revolution to Iberia.

    Incidentally, that’s supposedly also how soccer spread to Spain, and from there to South America.

    Another area developed for mining by the British in Spain was the Rio Tinto area of Andalusia, which gave rise to one of today’s largest mining operations worldwide, the Rio Tinto Group

  16. Eurologist

    Bavaria by contrast was a backwater.

    I wouldn’t go quite as far, but yes, traditionally, the (at least partially or mostly) non-catholic, increasingly secular “Mittelgebirgs” region (say, Wittenberg, Marburg, Gießen, Halle, Jena, Göttingen) had the most highly established and productive universities in general, and Göttingen and Berlin (and later Hannover and Hamburg) eventually had the high-tech ones that mattered in applied math, physics, and engineering.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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