Brexit Masks The Real Story: How Europe Is Converging

11/01/2016 08:09 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2016

The aftermath of the UK's decision to leave the European Union (EU) has dominated public and political discourse across the globe. The EU has plenty of other problems to worry about too: economic stagnation and social unrest in the southern Eurozone and rising populism in central Europe. Is Europe coming together or falling apart? A new pan-EU analysis of social progress suggests that, despite continued differences in wealth, the real quality of life of citizens across the EU appears to be converging.

The EU Regional Social Progress Index compares the like-for-like lived experience of citizens across the 272 regions of the EU - based on assessments of individuals' access to rights and freedom of choice, whether their basic human needs are being met, how healthy they are and what kind of access to knowledge and education they enjoy. It shows that wide divergences in wealth across the EU mask surprisingly consistent quality of life, in terms of social progress.

Take the example of Brussels, the capital of Europe, which is among the richest regions of Europe (GDP per capita of €55,600). Yet this economically privileged region does not score spectacularly well on social progress. Eastern Slovenia has a level of GDP per capita less than a third of that of Brussels but achieves a near identical Social Progress Index score. When it comes to quality of life across the EU, GDP is not the sole determinant.

Indeed, the most surprising finding of the EU Regional Social Progress Index is that the Brexit narrative of a divided United Kingdom, split between the privileged 'London Bubble' and more deprived regions, is not evident in terms of quality of life. Inner London, despite being the richest region of the EU, ranks just 81st out of 272 regions on social progress. GDP per capita in Cornwall and West Wales may be much lower but their social progress is on a par with Inner London.

Not all countries show such homogeneity, however. Of the EU's large countries, with more than 20 regions, Germany and the UK show remarkably consistent social progress scores across regions. Italy, at the other end of the scale, shows significant divergence.

This speaks to a general trend in the data: that the dividing lines between the 'old Europe' of the EU-15 countries and the 'new Europe' of the EU-13 members is blurring. Aggregate social progress in regions of new member states from Central Europe, such as Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, is actually comparable with those of regions of old member states in Southern Europe, such as Portugal, Italy and Greece. Romania and Bulgaria still lag but, perhaps, if they can emulate other EU-13 countries they can begin to catch up quickly.

When you interrogate specific elements of the regions' social progress, the crumbling of the divide between old and new Europe is even clearer. Performance on 'wellbeing' measures - like basic education, access to information and environmental quality - show relatively small differences between the EU-15 and EU-13. In fact, some EU-13 regions outperform regions in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK, as well as Spain, Portugal and Italy on these measures. What's more, EU-13 countries outperform their EU-15 peers on education indicators.

The EU Social Progress Index may be good news overall for the EU but the data also highlight areas of concern. The first is that environmental quality tends not to improve as regions get richer. This trend clearly needs to be reversed. Levels of tolerance and inclusion also remain significantly lower in EU-13 countries, irrespective of GDP per capita.

This snapshot of the EU's social progress cannot provide definitive answers on which factors are pulling Europe together and which are pushing Europe apart. To do that will require tracking this data over several years. Yet the Social Progress Index can already help. It can empower regions with more locally-targeted and relevant data so that policy-makers at all levels of government - from the Commission to the local council - can use the findings as a performance management tool to inform decision-making to help tackle interregional inequalities and improve social cohesion. A group of pilot regions in Poland, Slovakia, the UK and elsewhere has already been identified, where this principle will be put into practice, starting later this year.

The most recent chapter of the EU is the most challenging since its inception. But this new analysis offers optimism about the future of our continent by equipping policy-makers with the information and knowledge to improve the life chances of the EU's 500 million citizens. After all, that is arguably what the EU is all about: recognizing the power and value of collaboration and shared interests to improve the life chances of every citizen, in every region of every country.