Sick man of Europe

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Caricature from Punch, dated November 28, 1896. It shows Sultan Abdul Hamid II in front of a poster which announces the reorganisation of the Ottoman Empire. The empire's value is estimated at 5 million pounds. Russia, France and Britain are listed as the directors of the reorganisation. The caricature satirised the extremely poor state of the Ottoman economy at the time.

"Sick man of Europe" is a label given to a nation which is located in some part of Europe and experiencing a time of economic difficulty or impoverishment. The term was first used in the mid-19th century to describe the Ottoman Empire, and after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the term has been applied to European nations such as the United Kingdom or Germany.


British statesman John Russell in 1853, in the run up to the Crimean War, claimed Nicholas I of Russia described the Ottoman Empire as "a sick man—a very sick man", a "man who has fallen into a state of decrepitude", and a "sick man ... gravely ill".[1][2][3]

It is not easy to determine the actual source of the quotation. The articles cited above refer to documents held or communicated personally. The most reliable, publicly available source appears to be a book by Harold Temperley, published in 1936.[4] Temperley gives the date for the first conversation as 9 January 1853, like Goldfrank.[2] According to Temperley, Seymour in a private conversation had to push the Tsar to be more specific about the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Tsar stated,

"Turkey seems to be falling to pieces, the fall will be a great misfortune. It is very important that England and Russia should come to a perfectly good understanding... and that neither should take any decisive step of which the other is not apprized."

And then, closer to the attributed phrase:

"We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made."[5]

Showing the disagreement between the two countries on the Eastern Question, it is important to add that the British Ambassador G. H. Seymour agreed with Tsar Nicholas's diagnosis, but he very deferentially disagreed with the Tsar's recommended treatment of the patient; he responded,

"Your Majesty is so gracious that you will allow me to make one further observation. Your Majesty says the man is sick; it is very true; but your Majesty will deign to excuse me if I remark, that it is the part of the generous and strong man to treat with gentleness the sick and feeble man."[6]

Temperley then asserts,

"The ‘sickliness’ of Turkey obsessed Nicholas during his reign. What he really said was omitted in the Blue Book from a mistaken sense of decorum. He said not the ‘sick man’ but the ‘bear dies…the bear is dying… you may give him musk but even musk will not long keep him alive.’"[7]

Neither Nicholas nor Seymour completed the locution with the prepositional phrase "of Europe", which appears to have been added later and may very well have been journalistic misquotation. The first appearance of the phrase "sick man of Europe" appears in The New York Times (12 May 1860):

The condition of Austria at the present moment is not less threatening in itself, though less alarming for the peace of the world, than was the condition of Turkey when the Tsar Nicholas invited England to draw up with him the last will and testament of the 'sick man of Europe.' It is, indeed, hardly within the range of probability that another twelvemonth should pass over the House of Habsburg without bringing upon the Austrian Empire a catastrophe unmatched in modern history since the downfall of Poland.

The author of this article can be seen to be using the term to point to a second "sick man", this one more generally accepted as a European empire, the Habsburg Monarchy.[8]

Later, this view led the Allies in World War I to underestimate the Ottoman Empire, leading in part to the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign. [9][10][11][12] However, the "sick man" eventually collapsed after defeat in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I.

Post–World War I usage[edit]

After the demise of the Ottoman Empire, academics have cited many nations as the "sick men" of the Old World, having at one point or another widespread economic misery, sociopolitical turmoil, lower public morale and (in the case of bigger countries) diminished global status, the 1920s-era Weimar Germany being the earliest example.[citation needed]

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the United Kingdom was sometimes characterized as the "sick man of Europe", first by commentators, and later at home by critics of the third Wilson/Callaghan ministry due to industrial strife and poor economic performance compared with other European countries.[13] Some observers consider this era to have started with the devaluation of the pound in 1967, culminating with the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978–79. At different points throughout the decade, numerous countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece were cited by the American business press as being "on the verge of sickness" as well. In the summer of 2017, the United Kingdom was again referred to as the "sick man of Europe" following the results of the supposed negative economic effects of the EU referendum the previous year.[14]

Swedish Diplomat and former Prime Minister Carl Bildt once referred Serbia under the rule of Slobodan Milošević as the candidate of the new "sick man of Europe" in 1997. This is due to political instability in Yugoslavia and its former territories caused by Yugoslav Wars that rocked the Balkan region from 1991 until 2001.[15]

In the late 1990s the foreign press[which?] often labeled Germany with this term because of its economic problems, especially due to the costs of German reunification after 1990, which were estimated to amount to over €1.5 trillion (statement of Freie Universität Berlin).[13] It continued to be used in the early 2000s, and as Germany slipped into recession in 2003.[16][17]

In May 2005, The Economist attributed this title to Italy, describing it as "the real sick man of Europe." This refers to Italy's structural and political difficulties thought to inhibit economic reforms to relaunch economic growth. In 2018, Italy was again referred as the "sick man of Europe" following post-election deadlock.[18][19] In 2008, in an opinion piece criticizing the country's approach to economic reform, The Daily Telegraph also used the term to describe Italy,[20] as did CNBC in 2020.[21]

The post-Soviet Russia has been referred as such in the book Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser,[22] and by Mark Steyn in his 2006 book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.

In 2007, The Economist described Portugal as "a new sick man of Europe".[23]

A report by Morgan Stanley referred to France as the "new sick man of Europe."[24] This label was reaffirmed in January 2014 by European newspapers such as The Guardian and Frankfurter Allgemeine.[25][26] They justified this with France's high unemployment, weak economic growth and poor industrial output.[27]

In July 2009, the pejorative was given by EurActiv to Greece in view of the 2008 Greek riots, rising unemployment, and political corruption.[28]

In spring 2011, Eurozine suggested that the European Union was the "sick man of Europe" by entitling an event focusing on the Eurozone crisis, "The EU: the real sick man of Europe?"[29]

In 2015 and 2016, Finland has been called the "sick man of Europe" due to its recession and lacklustre growth, in a time when virtually all other European countries have recovered from the Great Recession.[30][31]

Scotland has been called "sick man of Europe" several times, but for health reasons instead of economic.[32]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Kingdom has been termed the "sick man of Europe" after a new strain of coronavirus, Variant of Concern 202012/01, led to a number of countries closing their borders to UK air travel.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ de Bellaigue, Christopher. "Turkey's Hidden Past". The New York Review of Books, 48:4, 2001-03-08.
  2. ^ a b de Bellaigue, Christopher. "The Sick Man of Europe". The New York Review of Books, 48:11, 2001-07-05.
  3. ^ "Ottoman Empire." Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 19 Apr. 2007.
  4. ^ Harold Temperley, England and the Near East (London: Longmans, Greens and Co., 1936), p. 272.
  5. ^ Harold Temperley, England and the Near East (London: Longmans, Greens and Co., 1936), p. 272. Temperley's translation of the Emperor's comment [spoken in French] is quite accurate. An alternative translation from the original published document follows: "We have on our hands a sick man -- a very sick man: it will be, I tell you frankly, a great misfortune if, one of these days, he should slip away from us, especially before all necessary arrangements were made." Source: Parliamentary Papers. Accounts and Papers: Thirty-Six Volumes: Eastern Papers, V. Session 31 January – 12 August 1854, Vol. LXXI (London: Harrison and Son, 1854), doc. 1, p. 2.
  6. ^ Parliamentary Papers. Accounts and Papers: Thirty-Six Volumes: Eastern Papers, V. Session 31 January – 12 August 1854, Vol. LXXI (London: Harrison and Son, 1854), doc. 1, p. 2.
  7. ^ Harold Temperley, England and the Near East (London: Longmans, Greens and Co., 1936), p. 272; cites: F.O. 65/424. From Seymour, No. 87 of February 21, 1853.
  8. ^ "Austria in Extremis", New York Times (12 May 1860), p. 4. The article is freely available. For an intriguing effort to link the misuse of this phrase to Turkey's efforts to join the EU, see Dimitris Livanios, "The ‘sick man’ paradox: history, rhetoric and the ‘European character’ of Turkey", Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, vol. 8, no. 3 (December 2006): 299–311.
  9. ^ Ph.D, David T. Zabecki (2014-10-28). Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History [4 volumes]: 400 Years of Military History. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-981-3.
  10. ^ Tucker, Spencer C. (2014-10-28). World War I: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection [5 volumes]: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-85109-965-8.
  11. ^ Hamilton, John (2015-04-30). Gallipoli Victoria Cross Hero: The Price of Valour- The Triumph and Tragedy of Hugo Throssell VC. Frontline Books. ISBN 978-1-84832-903-4.
  12. ^ Atkin, Malcolm (2015-09-18). Fighting Nazi Occupation: British Resistance 1939-1945. Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-4738-3377-7.
  13. ^ a b "The real sick man of Europe", The Economist. May 19, 2005.
  14. ^ Branchflower, David (2017-07-24). "'Britain is fast becoming the sick man of Europe' – experts debate Brexit data". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  15. ^ "Western Press Review: Milosevic And The New 'Sick Man Of Europe'". 1997-01-09. Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  16. ^ "The sick man of the euro". The Economist. 1999-06-03. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  17. ^ Oltermann, Philip (2016-11-19). "Angela Merkel and the revival of the sick man of Europe | World news". The Guardian. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  18. ^ Mehreen Khan. "Italy's populists are Juncker's big headache". Financial Times. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  19. ^ "Addio, dolce vita". The Economist. 24 November 2005.
  20. ^ "Italy: The sick man of Europe". The Daily Telegraph, 2008-04-15, archived,
  21. ^ "Op-Ed: Italy, the 'sick man of Europe,' tries to administer its own medicine" CNBC 2020-03-03.
  22. ^ Peter Baker, Susan Glasser, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 179-176.
  23. ^ "A new sick man of Europe". The Economist
  24. ^ "What We Do - Research". Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  25. ^ Finkenzeller, Karin. "Der kranke Mann Europas". Die Zeit. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  26. ^ "Frankreich holt sich Rat von Peter Hartz". Frankfurter Allgemeine. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  27. ^ Elliott, Larry (2014-01-14). "France: the New Sick Man of Europe". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  28. ^ [1][dead link]
  29. ^ "Eurozine - The EU: the real sick man of Europe? - Eurozine News Item Public debate in Vienna". Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  30. ^ Khan, Mehreen (2015-11-13). "Finland emerges as the 'new sick man of Europe' as euro's worst performing economy". Telegraph. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  31. ^ Walker, Andrew (2016-02-29). "Finland: The sick man of Europe? - BBC News". BBC News. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  32. ^ Whyte, Bruce; Ajetunmobi, Tomi (2012-11-01). "Still the "sick man of Europe"? | Glasgow Centre for Population Health". Retrieved 2017-07-02.
  33. ^ Mey, Gerhard; Makori, Ben (2020-12-21). "'Sick man of Europe': UK cut off over fears about new COVID strain". Reuters. Retrieved 2020-12-21.

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