General government expenditure by function in 2021



In 2021, general government total expenditure in the EU amounted to 51.5 % of gross domestic product (GDP) and was still influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and government measures to mitigate its effects. The decrease in the ratio compared with the previous year (52.8%) was mainly a consequence of increases in GDP, while growth in total expenditure was still observed (EUR 7475 in 2021 compared with EUR 7111 billion in 2020; an increase of EUR 364 billion, growing by 5.1 % compared with 2020).

This information comes from recently published data on general government expenditure by function. This article presents only a handful of findings from the more detailed set of Statistics Explained articles.

Highest proportion of government expenditure goes to social protection and health 

Among the main functions of general government expenditure in the EU, ‘social protection’ remained the most important in 2021, equivalent to 20.5 % of GDP. The next most important areas were ‘health’ (8.1 %), ‘economic affairs’ (6.3 %) and ‘general public services’ (6.0 %), such as external affairs and public debt transactions, and ‘education’ (4.8 %). The functions ‘public order and safety’ (1. 7%), ‘defence’ (1.3 %), ‘recreation, culture and religion’ (1.2 %), ‘environmental protection’ (0.8 %) and ‘housing and community amenities’ (0.6 %) had more limited weights.


Strong increases in social protection, economic affairs and health driven by the COVID-19 pandemic

At EU level, general government total expenditure increased for all the major functions. Still, increases were concentrated in ‘health’ (+EUR 103 billion), ‘economic affairs’ (+EUR 96 billion) and ‘social protection’ (+EUR 41 billion, with a -EUR 50 billion decrease for ‘unemployment’ being off-set by increases in ‘old age’ and other detailed functions within social protection).

Ratio of social protection expenditure highest in France and Finland, lowest in Ireland

‘Social protection’ represented the most important area of general government expenditure in 2021 for all the EU members. Government social protection expenditure as a percentage of GDP varied across Member States from 8.7 % in Ireland, 11.0 % in Malta, 12.5 % in Cyprus and 13.1 % in Hungary, to nearly a quarter in France (24.8 %), Finland (24.6 %) and Italy (23.4 %).

Government expenditure on health highest in Austria and Czechia, on economic affairs highest in Greece, on education highest in Sweden 

 In 2021, Austria (10.1 %), Czechia (9.8 %) as well as Denmark and France (both 9.2 %) recorded the highest ratios of government expenditure to GDP devoted to health among the EU members.

The highest ratios of government expenditure to GDP on economic affairs in 2021 were recorded in Greece (10.7 %), Austria (9.3 %) and Hungary (9.2 %), ahead of Malta (9.0 %).

The highest ratios of government expenditure to GDP on general public services were observed in Italy and Finland (both 8.1 %), Hungary (8.0 %) and Greece (7.9 %).

For education, the highest ratios to GDP were registered in Sweden (6.7 %), followed by Belgium (6.3 %) and Denmark (6.0 %).

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Methodological note: 

  • While a significant effort was undertaken to harmonise the recording of government measures to mitigate the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a full harmonisation of data for the reference years 2020 and 2021 was not yet achieved. The likelihood of future revisions is thus higher than usual, and data are provisional.
  • Administrative expenditure data is additionally collected in so-called satellite accounts. In general, the amount of expenditure recorded in satellite accounts is expected to exceed the expenditure recorded under the respective COFOG division. More details on the comparability of COFOG data with satellite accounts data can be found in the COFOG manual. Data on defence expenditure cannot be easily compared with NATO measures of defence expenditure.