|The Best Countries in Europe1|
|Pos.||Lower is better|
The table above is Europe-wide, not just EU-wide. For complete statistical analysis and comparison of European countries, see: Which are the Best Countries in Europe?.
The European Union is formed from a collection of treaties dating back to the European Economic Community founded in 1957. It has changed from an economic body designed to prevent war, into a wide and varied economic, social and political tool which encompasses over 440 million people2. "The EU is the world's biggest market, largest exporter, biggest aid donor and largest foreign investor"3. It has multiple democratic layers4; all laws are voted in by the European Parliament, which is comprised of members directly elected by member states' populations, and, the laws themselves are written by the Commission, which is led by a representative from each member state as chosen by their elected governments. Here are some notes on this growing megalith.
The EU has no utmost declaration of rights (the constitution would have provided one), so the following is a mixture of legal precedents, EU membership requirements, treaty obligations along with some practical realities of European culture:
Political Values and Rights. These are largely in keeping with democracy worldwide, although the EU has particular focus on matters of equality and non-discrimination based on colour, beliefs, religion, sexuality and gender.
Free Speech. Including the freedom to criticize government agencies and officials. But not the freedom to incite others to violent action, to be publicly racist (it falls foul of criminal law), or to damage lives with unfounded slander (civil law).
Separation of the Powers. The judiciary, government, military, police, parliament and a second chamber of parliament (such as the House of Lords in the UK) are all kept separate, providing the 'checks and balances' recommended by Machiavelli.6
Social Security. Governments manage the economy and welfare systems so that everyone has a support mechanism. A practical form of liberal humanism, this protects people against life's setbacks and grants the social stability that much of Europe has experienced for the past 50 years.
Protection from Corporate Abuse. Industries and commerce are regulated in order to prevent large-scale labour abuse, price-fixing and other modern-day evils that have resulted from globalisation. See "Multinational Corporations Versus Democracy: The Fight Between Commercialism and Nation States" by Vexen Crabtree (2006).
Selective summary provided by BBC News (2001)7
There is no central document for Human Rights and Democratic Values in the EU. A constant series of cases in the 1970s and 1980s gradually built upon the idea that certain fundamental rights existed. The EU constitution was to enshrine these rights into a codified document, but has unfortunately been derailed.
“Unlike, for example, the German constitution, the Community Treaties contain no catalogue of basic rights. [...] It should be borne in mind, however, that the original objectives of the Community were nearly entirely contained in the economic sphere and that the Treaty provisions concerned economic matters only or matters directly related to them. Thus it was not thought necessary to include any reference to fundamental rights which were considered to be sufficiently guaranteed by the national laws of member states. However, it was soon seen that the interests of the Community spread so wide that it was not possible to disregard these rights.”
"European Union Law" by Margot Horspool (2003)8
“The European Union and its Member States make significant efforts to promote, protect and preserve an open secular society with equal rights and opportunities. [... The] Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, must be respected. These values include respect for the uniqueness and freedom of the individual, equal opportunities for men and women (including the equal right of women to make individual choices in all walks of life) and equal treatment and non-discrimination on a number of grounds, including, for example, sexual orientation. Efforts to protect those principles may at times clash with the perceptions of certain individuals or faith groups.”
EU Monitoring Centre (2006)9
Various documents are pertinent in the discussion of values and rights. They include:
From the website of the European Commission:
It enshrines political rights such as freedom of speech and thought, the rule of law. "The charter covers some economic and social rights that are not contained in the Convention on Human Rights, such as the right to good administration and workers' social rights, including the right to strike. It also responds to the challenges of new technology by including articles on bioethics and the protection of personal data". It bans reproductive cloning. It makes clear the effects of judgements made by the European Court of Human Rights in the 50 years since the Convention of Human Rights. [BBC News (2001)7]
“First codified in the Maastricht Treaty of 1991, [it] represents the most authoritative and clear statement of the constitutive liberal values of the Western community: '1. The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States.'
In the preamble to the 1949 Statute of the Council of Europe, the founding governments reaffirmed 'their devotion to the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy'.”
Article 49 of the TEU specifically linked membership with these values. They are required to exist before a country can apply to join the EU, and in this way the European Community has acted as a powerful liberaliser of the entire European continent.
“These principles were reaffirmed in the so-called Copenhagen criteria of enlargement agreed at the European council of June 1993, which requires of prospective members the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities and 'the existence of a functioning market economy'.”
There are also less important values which are more akin to good manners.
Neighbourliness. Western European countries consolidated a European community as a means to end the bitter conflicts associated with war and to forge a European identity. There is now "a sense that it is un-European (not to mention uncouth) to bear historical grudges"13. To be a member of the EU, is to grow up into the European family. It is not right to avoid co-operation merely because you don't like your neighbours.
18 countries in the European Union have endorsed the constitutional treaty, four more stand ready to do so14. It has nonetheless been stopped in its tracks by the other five countries: two of them rejected it in public referendums, and Britain, Czech rep. and Poland have halted proceedings in the face of (probably correctly) perceived public opposition.
“The constitution's declared purpose was the improve the functioning of the institutions, to clarify the distribution of powers and to bring the union closer to its citizens. [...] The first part of the new text features institutional changes. [...] It also provides an exit clause for any members who might wish to leave the club. Part two of the constitution consists of a charter of fundamental rights, first drawn up as a declaratory statement at Nice. A lengthy third part comprises a consolidated and slightly amended version of all previous treaties.”
The Economist (2007)15
By 2004, 12 governments had promised to put the constitution to a referendum. But campaigning and public awareness was incredibly poor. Mr Chirac sent copies of the entire, largely incomprehensible text to all French voters, and they rejected it by 55% to 45%. The Dutch government didn't provide any campaign information at all, and the people rejected it 62% no, 38% yes. The project was cancelled, as it couldn't continue without the agreement of all member states.
The constitution was not the threat to national power that some feared. It wanted to institutionalize a strong role for national parliaments, shrink the size of the European Commission, and would not have transferred any power, as a whole, to Brussels14. The entire constitution was largely a compendium of already-existing treaties. It would have brought simplicity and increased transparency to the structure of the EU. There are intermittent signs and calls throughout the late 2000s, by various politicians, for parts (or all) of it to be saved, but, until a way is found that is democratic and doesn't ignore public opposition, it is unlikely to bear much fruit.
The EU Commission writes EU legislation for the Council of Ministers4. It conducts trade negotiations and judges on trade disputes15. It has, in 2023, around 32,000 employees; including policy officers, researchers, lawyers and translators17. This is much smaller in size than you would expect15,18, despite the necessity for it to include just over 2000 translators on its staff, a burden that few other governments have to endure. The Commission is led by the Council of Ministers, with EU member state's elected government providing one each, for 5-year terms, with the presidency (the most important EU figure4) rotating between them every six months15.
“The commission also has the role right of initiating legislation, administers the budget and has other independent powers including deciding competition cases and representing the union in trade negotiations. [...] The commission takes its political cue from the European Council, made up of the 27 heads of government.”
The Economist (2007)
“With a staff of just under 25,000 people [in 2016], the European Commission is a very small bureaucracy. To put things in perspective, the British Broadcasting Corporation employs a staff of just under 19,000 people. A single department of the federal government in the United States, such as the Department of Commerce, employs 44,000 people. In France, 5.6 million people are on the payroll of the French state; and well over a million people work for the National Health Service in the UK. Administrative costs associated with running the Commission take up only 6 per cent of the EU's budget.”
"The European Union: A Citizen's Guide" by Chris Bickerton (2016)18
Note that when Bickerton wrote that in 2016, the number of translators was almost 400 higher, at 238419.
The EU Parliament votes on whether to accept the laws written by the Commission. It had 785 members in 2007. They are elected directly by member nations with total numbers scaled according to each country's size4,15. It "serves for five years; unlike the commission, which is in Brussels, it holds its plenary meetings mostly in Strasbourg, though committees meet in Brussels15.
The European Court of Justice, "based in Luxembourg, acts as the EU's supreme court in areas for which the union is responsible (which does not include criminal law, for example). There is one judge per country"15.
Another cost of its international nature, aside from translations and bureaucratic slowness, is its logistical spread and practices; as a result of the agreements of the 1997 Treaty, the EU is split between Strasbourg in France, Brussels in Belgium, and Luxembourg20. Some have called for things to be simplified but France has resisted21 (and as a constitutional matter, it can only be changed if everyone agrees,).
“A 2013 study by the European Parliament shows that €103 million could be saved per year should all EP operations be transferred from Strasbourg to Brussels (2014 prices). This is a significant amount, though it corresponds to just [...] 0.1% of the entire EU budget.”
EU's Official Europa website (2023)20
#austria #belgium #bulgaria #cyprus #czechia #denmark #estonia #finland #france #germany #greece #hungary #iceland #ireland #italy #latvia #lithuania #luxembourg #malta #netherlands #norway #poland #portugal #romania #slovakia #slovenia #spain #sweden #switzerland #turkey #UK
Who is in the EU? Who has adopted the Euro? Who is in NATO? Who is in the passport-free zone?
The Economist (2007)22
Public opposition to the Constitution and what some call "enlargement fatigue" have led many to doubt the dream of an ever-closer union achieved through giant steps such as the Constitution. Instead, a new Europe of varied and multiple accords is emerging, where countries sign up to parts of the whole as it suits them. Some countries clearly want more integration than others.
“In fact this is already happening. All [EU] members must participate in the single market, with its four freedoms of movement (of goods, services, labour and capital). Most of them are also members of NATO, but some are not; only 13 of the present 27 are in the euro; a different but overlapping 12 are in the Schengen passport-free travel zone, with the addition of three non-members; and just seven have signed the Prüm treaty governing the exchange of information among police forces. [...] New, often poor members are invited on the basis that they do not take part in all EU activities right from the start: they are usually given long transition periods before benefiting in full from the union's four freedoms.”
The Economist (2007)22
The faltered constitution project may have been too big of a step; the multi-speed approach is a much surer path towards the future.
In the 1980s and 1990s, "Helmut Kohl, Germany's chancellor, talked in unabashed terms about a United States of Europe"23 and the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, wrote a booklet in 2005 by the same title. Such a unison is not on the horizon. I feel that the EU is best served by remaining a series of overlapping intergovernmental treaties as I have said above, but Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, still thinks almost all EU projects should be seen as preparations for political union23.
“Talk of 'core Europe', and various other slogans advanced by, amongst others, Jacques Delors and Valéry Giscard d'Estang, is almost as old as the institutions of Europe.”
The Economist (2007)24
In "What's Wrong with the World?" by G. K. Chesterton (1900)25, the makes the trite point that "they will often tell you (in their praises of the coming age) that we are moving on towards a United States of Europe. But they carefully omit to tell you that we are moving away from a United States of Europe", and he points out that in classical times, Europe was united under the Roman Empire26. But his play of words is pretty shallow, given that such a union was a military dictatorship imposed from without, whereas the United States of Europe being discussed in this century is a democratic partnership, embraced from within, and that Europe over such a long timescale hasn't progressed from union to fragmentation; it has sometimes veered towards togetherness, and sometimes veered towards fracture. The status of the European Union continues to go through the same warbles.
Ideas of European unity are not new; they are more than a few generations old. In 1914, for example, Rudolf Kjellén promoted the idea of a European federation27, led by Germany as the most powerful industrial and commercial powerbase in Europe. In the nineteenth century most those who called for European unity (especially of the military and political kind) had in mind the fearsome threat of Russian dominance over Europe28. But such ideas were once actively promoted by Russia itself and it was Alexander I in the early nineteenth century who first pushed for the conservative states of Europe to defend each other against political upheaval. Instead, what emerged was a Europe criss-crossed by accords, deals and treaties: with sets of alliances overlapping and competing.
“Alexander's grandiose schemes [...] had been seriously checked in 1815. The same fate awaited his suggestion in October 1818 of a 'general alliance' which should be open to all states and become the basis of a system of collective guarantee of the status quo by the contracting powers. [...] Nevertheless Alexander's idealism, however impractical, struck a chord which reverberated widely in the Europe of the years after the Napoleonic catastrophe. [...] In intellectual circles, perhaps even in ruling ones, agreement on the need to make Europe more united and endow it with some form of political organization, however rudimentary, was now for the first time a factor of some practical significance. In Germany the Catholic mystic Baader advocated a federation of the European states based on the Christianity which they all professed. In France Bergasse suggested the more limited expedient of a permanent alliance of sovereigns, while Saint-Simon sketched the plan of a great European society, democratic and parliamentary, of which the nucleus was to be formed by an alliance between France and Britain.”
Apart from Alexander in the early 19th century, Giuseppe Mazzini later floated ideas in 1871 that sound much like a prototype of the European Union; once countries developed into free states, he prophesized, they would unite into some form of association30. In 1882 the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote: "The nations are not something eternal. They had their beginnings and they will end. A European confederation will very probably replace them"31.
But all these previous ideas based on political unity, alliances of leading families, and military alliances; failed to create stability or failed to get started as serious movements at all. Europe was then the center of the two world wars, before eventually an economic community united Europe and ended the conflicts.
The UK Fuel Crisis-20210925 (2021)
The EU has acted on behalf of its member states on many occasions to support, foster, fund and encourage human rights protections in every region of the world, with agreement of its member states through the European Parliament. The protections of workers' rights and their harmonisations (which stops companies moving staff to countries with the weakest laws) has had great effect in stopping workforce abuse33. According to Human Rights Watch's comprehensive review for the year 2017, in addition to vocal and public pronouncements on poor human rights records of many countries, the EU has also acted through economic sanctions, political pressure and used other means to incentivize the adoption of human rights protections, even if these measures harm EU trading34.
The UK Government in 2010 summarized some of the specific protections with regards to workers rights:
“Workers (apart from those in a small number of specific industries) cannot be asked to work more than 48 hours per week, unless they wish to. They are entitled to a rest break of at least 11 hours each day and a further break if the working day is longer than six hours. In addition, they are entitled to one day off per week and annual paid holiday of at least four weeks each year.
Part-time workers and those on fixed term contracts are entitled to the same benefits pro-rata as those on permanent contracts including the same rates of pay, the same access to sickness benefit and the same access to company pension schemes, unless differences in treatment are objectively justified.
Employees with parental responsibilities have a right to a minimum thirteen weeks leave to enable them to take care of a child up to the age of five years, or eighteen weeks leave in cases of a disabled child under the age of 18.
This convergence of rules in the EU provides fair conditions of competition for all across Europe.”
The last point - about harmonized rules - is not just a question of business efficiency (i.e., companies don't need to calculate and implement employment rules for each of the territories in which it employs people). When rules are harmonized, companies can't choose to move all of their workforce to the places with the slackest rules - and countries aren't tempted to reduce standards in order to attract cheaper employers - a process which hurts many people in the medium and long term.
There are risks to the EU's strength on human rights and civil protections; several EU communities in 2017 saw anti-human-rights and anti-EU popularists become more influential, shaping politics (whether or not they won many seats during elections)35. Typically these parties share anti-immigration, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim agendas and managed to encourage mainstream parties to veer towards similar stances36.
To say that "the question of the EU's long-term survival has frequently been raised"37 is a mild way of phrasing it: Every decade has seen a series of doom-laden prophesies from academics and professionals of every calibre, declaring that the project towards institutional European integration is at the end of its life. "Many expected the dissolution of the EC in the 1970s and there was much guesswork as to who would leave first"38. In the 1980s, academics "warned about the possible disintegration of the EEC and even leading members of EC institutions openly spoke of the dismal state that Europe was in. [In] 1982, the president of the European Parliament compared the Community to a 'feeble cardiac patient whose condition is so poor that he cannot even be disturbed by a birthday party'"39. After that dismal diatribe, the pronouncements continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In 2005 the veteran politician Jean-Claude Juncker said "the EU is not in crises: it is in deep crisis"40. From 2016, Brexit is said to be the latest cause of the imminent disintegration of the EU41,42 amongst other reasons42. A 2017 book The European Union in Crisis43 states that the death-tolls have been sounded so frequently that many people under-estimate the seriousness of the current crises - which is, yet again, the most serious yet44. The EU is always in crises, just like crime is always getting worse, immigrants more dastardly, the weather deteriorating and employment evaporating45.
For more, see:
The EU goes through phases of unpopularity46. At various times in history, the loudest anti-EU voices were communists and mavericks; but from year 2000 it became anti-establishment and popularist right-wing movements that shout loudest about the EU47 (as well as those who pander to xenophobia and anti-globalism). In many developed countries there is a loss of interest in politics48 and very few political systems are seen positively, including the EU49. Part of the reason is that a long period of peace between EU members has made it hard to remember46,50 what it was like when wars, tariff races, travel restrictions and dozens of currencies all damaged quality of life. Without those common enemies, the EU itself has become a scapegoat for many national issues, with politicians using anti-EU rhetoric to hide governmental failures50, and cheap mass-media outlets selling newspapers with ridiculous and ill-informed articles about the EU. Many (knowing even less about the EU than they do about their own governments) are taken in by such claims.
Despite all that, since 2017, the EU has seen a sharp rise in popularity as the spectacle of Brexit has reminded many people of the advantages of membership51. Although the EU remains as unpopular as other political institutions, even in the most skeptical country, Greece, few people want to actually leave it (36%). In 2017, only around 18% of the EU population wished to leave51.
For more, see:
“With an ageing society and relatively low fertility rates, many commentators believe that economic immigration will be necessary for the European Union to overcome labour shortages in the coming years.”
Countries in the EU such as Britain, Sweden and Eire, that have opened their borders fully to EU's new members such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, have benefited from it more than others. History has shown that a liberalised work force and reduced barriers against employment benefit economies and stability in the long term. This means that the more barriers there are to people from one country freely finding employment in a neighbouring country, the worse off the whole region is over time.
Europe as a whole requires net immigration in order to maintain its industries, pensions and social structure. This is because the population increase has slowed and many countries would be seeing population declines if not for their open borders. The result is an ageing native population whose pensions are paid by newcomers. The fertility rate required to maintain the present population is 2.1 children.
“The fertility rate in the EU is 1.47 - well below replacement. By 2010, deaths there are expected to start outnumbering births, so from that point immigration will account for more than all its growth. [...] The fertility rate in Italy and Spain is 1.28, which, without immigration, would cause the number of Spaniards and Italians to halve in 42 years.”
The Economist (2006)53
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland are all in the Schengen passport-free travel zone, making internal travel easy and practical. Few remaining borders are prison-like, but it is still inefficient to maintain internal borders when there could be merely one EU outline. If every country pooled its border police and the external borders of the EU were staffed multilaterally, everyone would gain from both increased efficiency and a larger overall measure of security from the outside (non-European) world. National states would still employ local forces for local enforcement and policing of immigration law (and for training), and as a quick reaction force for immigration-related crime within the national border. But overall passport and refugee management staff should be European and collective.
The present system is failing, especially in the new enlarged Union. For example, Fontex is attempting to shore up contributions from EU members to police Malta's southern (watery) borders, a project known as Operation Nautilis II, against illegal immigration from North Africa, especially from Libya. But even this limited, specific weakspot is not given appropriate attention. Even nearby countries such as Italy do not contribute.54. The EU's new members struggle to cope. Prof. Monar elaborates on the reasons why the new entrants, now defining the Union's Eastern border, undermine EU immigration policy. Problems include under-manning; in both Hungary and Poland actual staff numbers of border guards in 2001 fell around 30% short, and Slovenia in 2002 had only appointed about half those it promised in its Schengen Action Plan55.
“For some Member States (especially current frontline Schengen countries like Austria, Germany and Italy) ensuring a high degree of border security through sophisticated and extensive checks is clearly a central objective in the JHA area. The Union's new Eastern European Members States are not likely to share this approach fully. [... It] entails major costs in form of a disruption of relations with ethnic minorities on the other side of the border, political relations with neighbouring countries and well-established cross-border trade.”
Prof. Jörg Monar (2004)55
The establishment of a strong Union Border force would eradicate such nationalistic interests and national manning problems, and allow for an effective common European foreign policy on immigration and asylum seekers, meaning that one countries' half-hearted porous border does not undermine its neighbour's expensive and strong border. The European bloc as a whole could reaction to sudden increases in migration over particular borders, rather than such surges overwhelming a countries' individual border guard. It would no longer become a disadvantage to be an 'edge' country and being forced to foot an unfair percentage of a European border. With a combined force, all countries would contribute fair quantities of staff and equipment to a joint effort.
It is a Governments' job to protect people against forces beyond their control, so, legislating on working conditions is appropriate. But political interference in normal market forces isn't democratic. It is light totalitarianism. One way in which politicians control and skew market forces is by setting corporate tax rates. The standardisation of corporate tax over multiple countries has many benefits. "European politicians began puzzling over tax harmonisation in 1962"56:
“Now European Union plans for a common tax base have begun to gain pace and may even take wing, in spite of several countries' efforts to stop them. On May 2nd the European Commission gave an upbeat report on its progress towards legislation on a common consolidated corporate tax base. László Kocács, the EU's tax commissioner, said a proposal would be ready in the first half of 2008 and tentatively suggested that a common base could be in place some time "after 2010". Under the commission's rough plans, companies would adopt a tax base for their EU-wide activities, rather than face a tangle of 27 different regimes. [...] Many of the details, such as the delicate issue of how to split revenues between countries, are still to be hammered out. But one red line has been drawn: national exchequers will continue to set their own rates.”
"A common EU tax base: Harmony and discord" in The Economist (2007)57
The benefits are numerous. (1) Companies would simply "adopt a tax base for their EU-wide activities, rather than face a tangle of 27 different regimes"56. This would massively decrease the accounting costs for multinational companies. Accounting is one of those non-productive expenses that wastes money. With standardized rates, overall efficiency will increase. (2) Politicians would have one less tool to artificially manipulate markets. (3) European companies would be more competitive globally as overheads decreased. (4) The single-market would benefit56. (5) Less overheads means lower prices for consumers.
But implementing this is difficult as Governments such as Irelands' will not want to lose a tool they use (low corporate tax) to attract business. General centralisation-phobia will also impede progress. Here comes another useful application of a potential multispeed Europe approach: "A core group could advance" and standardize rates. This would grant fractions of the benefits listed above and prove the principle. But, countries such as Ireland would temporarily have an even bigger advantage, so, there is an argument that all 27 EU countries should be compelled to proceed together. In either case, the benefits of corporate tax normalisation are clear: the toes that are stepped on are only the ones who were politically manipulating the market.
Further reading about Europe in general: Which are the Best Countries in Europe?