Policy brief

Why has COVID-19 hit different European Union economies so differently?

All European Union countries are undergoing severe output losses as a consequence of COVID-19, but some have been hurt more than others. Factors poten

Publishing date
22 September 2020
André Sapir

All European Union countries are undergoing severe output losses as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis, but some have been hurt more than others. In response to the crisis, EU leaders have agreed on a Recovery and Resilience Fund (RFF), which will help all EU countries, but those hit hardest will benefit most.

This Policy Contribution explores why some countries have been hit economically more than others by COVID-19. Using statistical techniques described in the technical appendices, several potential explanations were examined: the severity of lockdown measures, the structure of national economies, the fiscal capacity of governments to counter the collapse in economic activity, and the quality of governance in different countries.

We found that the strictness of lockdown measures, the share of tourism in the economy and the quality of governance all play a significant role in explaining differences in economic losses in different EU countries. However, public indebtedness has not played a role, suggesting that that the European Central Bank’s pandemic emergency purchase programme has been effective.

We used our results to explore why some southern EU countries have been more affected by the COVID-19 crisis than some northern countries. Depending on the pairs of countries or country groupings that we compared, we found that differences in GDP losses were between 30 and 50 percent down to lockdown strictness, between 35 and 45 percent to the quality of governance and between 15 and 25 percent down to tourism.

This could have implications for the allocation of the RRF between recovery and resilience expenditures. Supporting the recovery through a combination of demand and supply initiatives is important to ensure that countries rebound as quickly as possible from the COVID-19 crisis, without leaving too much permanent damage to their economies. But in many countries, especially some of the southern countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis, resilience is a major sticking point. Too often, in some of these countries, the poor quality of governance has had a negative impact on their resilience, as the relatively large size of their GDP shocks has demonstrated. It is crucial therefore that RRF programmes devote sufficient attention (and resources) to improving the quality of governance in these countries.

Recommended citation

Sapir, A. (2020) ‘Why has COVID-19 hit different European Union economies so differently?’, Policy Contribution 2020/18, Bruegel

About the authors

  • André Sapir

    André Sapir, a Belgian citizen, is a Senior fellow at Bruegel. He is also University Professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and Research fellow of the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research.

    Between 1990 and 2004, he worked for the European Commission, first as Economic Advisor to the Director-General for Economic and Financial Affairs, and then as Principal Economic Advisor to President Prodi, also heading his Economic Advisory Group. In 2004, he published 'An Agenda for a Growing Europe', a report to the president of the Commission by a group of independent experts that is known as the Sapir report. After leaving the Commission, he first served as External Member of President Barroso’s Economic Advisory Group and then as Member of the General Board (and Chair of the Advisory Scientific Committee) of the European Systemic Risk Board based at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

    André has written extensively on European integration, international trade and globalisation. He holds a PhD in economics from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he worked under the supervision of Béla Balassa. He was elected Member of the Academia Europaea and of the Royal Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts.

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