The European Research Council has provided substantial research grants across all disciplines during the period 2007–2013. An analysis of the distribution of the ERC (IDEAS) Starting, Consolidator and Advanced grants shows substantial differences by country. On the one hand, the UK excels in the relative number of awards, in its share among the top receiving institutions, in a high proportion of inwards mobile scholars and in the overall financial gain through ERC as compared with the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. In addition, the Netherlands is among the winners in these respects. On the other hand, Italy fares unfavourably according to these measures. In the search for an explanation of the Italian situation, a comparison is undertaken with other European countries of a similar size. The article arrives at the conclusion that low Italian success in efforts to raise such ERC funds is not due to the low average quality of the Italian education and research system, but rather due to low funding, e.g. to a low proportion of the GDP spent on research.