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States on the verge of financial collapse, a currency with a shaky future, hilarious regulations like the infamous standard for the curvature of cucumbers and sinister trade agreements such as ACTA – the first things that pop into your mind when the EU is mentioned are not the most pleasant thoughts.
However, if you think that the EU could or should be torn apart by the economic and financial crisis, or the innate ridiculousness of trying to ban curved cucumbers, you need to think twice or take a look at a new survey. At the beginning of this year the EuPI, or the European Policies Initiative of the Open Society Institute-Sofia, a liberal think tank, published the results of the State of the Union: Findings of the European Catch-Up Index Survey. Measuring the performances of 35 European countries, including Turkey, in the four crucial areas of Democracy, Governance, Economy and Quality of Life, the survey discovered that, almost imperceptibly, the continent has changed in many ways, but that the EU still fulfils a vital need.
"The major outcomes of the index are twofold," Marin Lessenski, a researcher from the EuPI, said. "It has concrete policy relevance for the EU, for Europe as a whole and for each of the countries as it can measure and rank their performances across specific, fundamental indicators. The analysis produced an alternative narrative of Europe, which goes beyond the debates about the EU as defined by political groups and regulations."
In the final results, Luxembourg, Denmark and Sweden top the list, scoring 71 points. Turkey, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina are at the bottom. Bulgaria and Romania occupy positions 28 and 29 respectively, out of 35.
The methodology of the index is specifically designed, Lessenski explains. "Our starting point was finding a feasible matrix for the question 'Are we in Europe yet?' That included a way to measure and rank the performance of the 35 countries – EU members, candidates and potential candidates.The methodology also reflects the thinking of OSI-Sofia of what defines an EU country. It is not only about GDP and economic development, or quality of life, but also about a high quality of democracy and good governance. This all-round development is the standard we should strive for and the index showed the deep interdependence between these dimensions."
A total of 47 indicators were measured. "There are different weights for the different indicators, indicating their importance in the model. All data is re-scaled into standardised scores on a scale from 0 to 100 (lowest to highest) and provides the opportunity to compare different indicators and analyse the information," Lessenski explains. The data is available on www.TheCatchUpIndex.eu, where users can browse the results to find information about homicide rates or life expectancy or government effectiveness, and create their own index.
In analysing the data on state exposure to debt and weak governance, the team uncovered an uncomfortable fact. States with low exposure to debt but weak institutions are more vulnerable and more likely to experience difficulties in the future than strong states, even those with a high levels of debt. The strength or weakness of a state is defined according to that country's performance in the governance index, Lessenski says. "We are measuring governance through 10 basic criteria such as effectiveness of the government, rule of law, level of corruption and control of corruption, political stability, regulatory quality, level of conflict and tensions in society, crime levels, and development of e-government. This means that a strong state would be able to make quality political decisions for the public good, free of vested interests and corruption, and effectively implement these decisions. The society will be lacking in major conflicts and tensions and crime levels will be low."
According to the debts/state weakness ratio, Bulgaria is in one of the worst positions. The government boasts widely about its low indebtedness but the survey reveals Bulgaria to be a shockingly weak country. Only Greece is worse off, as beside incalculable debts it also suffers from weak governance.
According to the survey, if nothing changes before too long, Bulgaria's future looks far from bright. "Bulgaria will remain in the 'arrested development' state, in which it now is. For example, Bulgaria's current position in the index is 26th out of 27 EU member states. This is a poor result, it shows that Bulgaria still has a long way to go to achieve what we refer to as the average EU levels," Lessenski says. "If the country wants to advance it should try to emulate the success of the best in its group of post-communist member states, like Estonia, and should not be complacent about achieving the bare minimum. But this means reform now in order to reap the benefits in the years to come. In the case of healthcare, for example, Bulgaria ranks behind Albania and in quality of life trails behind Serbia and Montenegro. This is a bitter conclusion for a country into its sixth year of membership."
The survey revealed a lot more, however.
Take the East-West divide, for example. It is common wisdom that the continent is still divided as it was at the end of the Cold War between prosperous democracies in the West and young, poor and newly-free societies in the East. This is no more. The survey discovered that European countries are not divided simply by the borders of the Eurozone or the Schengen area. Instead, six so-called clusters of countries appeared on the map. They unite states with similar performances in the areas of governance, economy, quality of life and democracy. According to this, for example, Bulgaria now has more in common with its Balkan neighbours than with former fellow Soviet satellite Poland.
It is as if the Cold War had never been, and the oldest and deepest divisions within the continent still rule the lifestyle of the people and the performance of their countries.
"Yes, the analysis of the Catch-Up Index findings points to the fact that the divisions in Europe are between Europe's North-Western part and its South-Eastern part, with an imaginary diagonal line dividing Europe," Lessenski says. "In terms of catching-up, many former Communist countries are on a par with or have even surpassed older member states. This shift in the geography of Europe illustrates the fact that we are living in a post-Cold War reality. At the same time, looking at the 'new map' of Europe charted by the index findings one can see much older historic-cultural patterns that go back even to the age of empires. For example, all the Balkan states, their recent history or membership in the EU notwithstanding, are clustered in close groups, forming a sort of 'Balkan Union.' The imprint of the former Austro-Hungarian legacy is also visible on the map. Of course, these are not the only defining factors of a country, but it was fascinating when these patterns showed up – unintentionally – as a result of the index analysis."
Was the crisis the catalyst for these divisions? "It has only exposed already existing rifts in Europe – the differences are in areas which are difficult to change. But the crisis also acted as the catalyst for further divergence or convergence in Europe. In a way, the crisis has exposed facts that remained unnoticed during the boom years. For example, in the picture of Europe that we have now, Greece has slipped back closer to the group of its Balkan neighbours, despite having been a Western state and an EU member for so long."
However, Lessenski believes that a united Europe not only has a future – the EU is vital to many of the states in the continent. "Small countries like Bulgaria need a united Europe more than anyone else. The index showed the deep fault lines that divide Europe and the dangers of fragmentation along these lines. This is a dire warning, but at the same time this is also the diagnosis, which is the necessary first step to finding solutions. Europe as a whole has a big stake in a strong EU.
"However, 'more of Europe' and a more united Europe should not be achieved through centralised, one-size-fits-all policies. If divergence between the EU members is the gravest challenge, then convergence should have common, overarching goals and rules, but allow every country to choose its own path to achieve it. For example, if the harmonisation of taxes goes too far, it will simply stifle the process of catching up for countries such as Bulgaria by erasing their competitive advantages and will increase the divergence within Europe. However, in some cases, strict common rules, imposed even through automatic sanctions, are a necessity – if the EU had had these in its fiscal policies, it might not be in this situation now."