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National economic data can mask wide regional variety. Some regions within nations have bigger economies than most countries – California’s GDP exceeds the UK’s, France’s or India’s, for instance – but regional differences help explain the new politics of nationalism and populism.

Since the collapse of Soviet communism three decades ago, Europe’s central spine has flourished while peripheral economies, including southern Italy plus much of Greece and the UK, have been left behind.

The German, UK and French GDP per person has moved marginally relative to other EU countries since 2000 but the big relative losers are Italy and Greece while the big winners are mostly former-communist countries in central and East Europe. Lithuanian and Estonian incomes were less than half Greek earnings in 2000; now they are higher.

However, look at developments at the sub-national level. The Bucharest area has risen 231 places in the regional European rankings’ since 2000, for instance. Its average income then was EUR11,300 compared with EUR5,200 elsewhere in Romania; by 2017 it was EUR43,200 compared with the national EUR18,800. Bucharest is now well ahead of West Wales, which dropped 111 places, and Umbria, which plunged 168 places.

Other regions within former Soviet states, including Bratislava, Warsaw and Budapest, all now have incomes exceeding the EU average. Being a major city with international transport connections helps.

But some traditionally-richer peripheral regions of Western Europe – including Crete, Sicily, Puglia, Lincolnshire and Merseyside – have experienced prolonged relative decline as the centre of economic gravity shifted towards Europe’s heart.

And some countries that appear to have prospered remain highly imbalanced internally. Germany is richer than France, but its regional income inequality is greater – a hangover from before East and West were reunited.

Many thought the US economy’s inbuilt economic flexibility would prevent it following Europe. It was assumed that people, unencumbered by language differences, would move to more prosperous regions while capital flowed to low-wage areas, causing a slow convergence of incomes – both within states and between states.

However, since the 1980s the convergence has reversed. Aspects of the American Dream have turned sour as the US increasingly looks like Europe – disjointed or sclerotic with economic hotspots.

Male non-employment has become persistent in places that relied on mining or agriculture. Inelastic housing supply and skill specialisations have sharply reduced migration within and between counties.

House prices reflect economic prospects: they have almost trebled in California’s tech-based cities since 2000 while halving in parts of poorer states, even if tech companies create comparatively few jobs.

Such economic undulations come with political consequences, including the risk that, within nations, the gap widens between places that flourish and those left behind. Something must eventually give.

The politics of populism may grow, leading to more protectionism and isolationism and, ultimately, a smaller economic cake. Worse, nation states could fracture, reflecting a growing ‘them and us’ divide.

Fortunately, some problems can be ameliorated through enlightened domestic policies, including investment in housing, transport infrastructure, education and training. But can these be pursued quickly enough to solve the politics of place?

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