The Human Freedom Index across Europe: Personal and Economic Freedom

Annabel Mempel // 13 February 2018

How free do you think your country is? Would you believe that Estonia ranks better than the United States? Seven European countries made the top ten in the most recent edition of the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, but Poland, Greece and Moldova have declined dramatically in just one year.  Switzerland ranks best, not just in Europe but out of all 159 countries analysed. Ukraine scores the lowest in Europe mostly because of inflation and money regulations.

The Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index (HFI) measures liberty across the world using 79 different indicators that enables us to create a ranking of 159 countries. In the 2017 Edition, Switzerland ranked the highest with a total score of 8.89 out of 10, whilst Syria ranked the lowest with a total score of 4.04.

Human Freedom in Europe. 1 =  least free, 10 = freest

The different indicators of the HFI are categorised into Personal Freedom and Economic Freedom.

For Personal Freedom, the HFI firstly considers the Rule of Law. This takes into account the fairness and effectiveness of procedural, civil and criminal justice. Within the last year, there were several interesting changes in the European Union; Belgium improved by 0.6 points on this score, which could be related to changes in the civil procedure law of October 2015. However, Poland saw its score decline by 0.3, mostly due to severe changes in procedural justice, where it experienced a decline of -0.7.

Security and Safety considers homicide, conflicts (including terrorism) and women’s security and safety. In this category, Ukraine’s score for disappearance and conflict declined dramatically by 1.2 points.

In Movement, most European countries rank best with a score of 10, including Denmark, the United Kingdom and Lithuania. This means that many European countries ensure Domestic, Foreign and Women’s movement. The latter concerns women’s ability to move outside of the home safely and without restrictions.

Freedom of Religion relates to the freedom of religious organisations, their protection from harassment and the absence of legal restrictions. Sweden improved this count by 1.1, however, Spain’s score here dropped by the same amount, probably due to a new law introduced in 2015 that restricts public protest. Interestingly, Russia’s score on harassment and hostility decreased by 2.9, potentially caused by events in 2015 when the government seized the bibles of Jehovah’s witnesses, marked their website as extremist and made the distribution of such material criminal offence.

The next category considers access to Association, Assembly and Civil Society. Russia improved their regulations, especially with regard to demonstrations, by 2.5.

Expression & Information looks at the freedom of the press as well as the state’s influence on media content and any restrictions to access to information. Romania decreased in access to foreign information by 2.5 even though it ranks 10 in almost all other sub-categories. Due to economic conditions at the time, many foreign media companies sold their shares and assets mostly to Romanian nationals that increasingly used this to promote their own, Romanian agendas in politics, making access to foreign information less available.

Identity and Relationships considers legal gender, parental rights, same-sex relationships and divorce. Most European countries declined here even though they had previously scored quite well; this is mostly due to the introduction of the category of legal gender meaning freedom to change gender and sexual identity. Italy, for example, declined by 0.7 in the category overall.

Personal Freedom across Europe, 1 =  least free, 10 = freest

If Economic Freedom was solely measured without Personal Freedom taken into account, then Hong Kong would rank best overall, followed by Singapore and New Zealand. Categories include the Size of Government which evaluates government consumption, subsidies, investments and tax rates. This is the single most important category where European countries rank worst. France only scored 4.2 here and Greece only 3.4 out of 10.

The Legal System and Property Rights section studies courts, protection of economic rights, military interference and reliability of police, amongst other indicators. Countries such as Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway scored well in contrast to Bulgaria and Croatia.

Sound Money looks at money growth, inflation and the freedom to own a foreign currency account. Cyprus and the Czech Republic almost achieved a perfect 10. Generally, European countries scored mostly above 8 with the exceptions of Iceland with 7.2 and Ukraine with 3.3. Iceland introduced a monetary reform in 2015 introducing a Sovereign Money proposal which restricted commercial banks in regards to creation of money and gave more control to the central bank. Additionally, its capital controls limited foreign account holders which secured its currency for a while.

Freedom to Trade Internationally considers tariffs, trade barriers and controls on the movement of capital and people. Most European countries ranked quite well here, e.g. Ireland with 8.8 Lastly, Regulation analyses credit markets, labour markets and business regulations. Russia ranks worst out of the European countries with 6.5.

Economic Freedom across Europe, 1 =  least free, 10 = freest 

The broad picture shows Eastern European countries as less free than Western and Northern European countries. Yet, scores overall improved for Central European countries. It is recognisable that Europe ranks not very well in Economic Freedom as opposed to other countries. This is mostly due to higher tax rates, and more onerous tariff and credit market regulations in Europe than in other countries in the world. However, Europe ranks highly in terms of Personal Freedom and it seems to improve each year as regulations on religion and relationships are phased out.

You can access the full Human Freedom Index here.

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