Where Are They Now? Findings of the European Catch-Up Index 2021


The convergence of the new EU member states with their Western counterparts continues, but with already clear differences between those successful in the catching-up and those falling behind, according to the report “Where Are They Now?”, which contains the findings of the new Catch-Up Index 2021. This is the tenth edition of the Catch-Up Index, with the first report released in 2011. The Catch Up Index registers the convergence and divergence in Europe by measuring the performance of 35 countries – the EU member states, the candidate and potential candidate countries across four categories – Economy, Quality of Life, Democracy and Governance, using 47 basic indicators.

The top performers in index 2021 in the ranking of 35 countries by overall score are Denmark (1st with 72 points out of 100), the Netherlands (2nd with 71 points) with Sweden (3rd) and Finland (4th) with 70 points each with just minimal difference in the score on a scale from 100 to 0, highest to lowest score. The last three countries in the 2021 ranking are Bosnia and Herzegovina (35th with 19 points), Turkey (34th with 23 points) and Albania (33rd with 24 points).

Index 2021 shows a gap between the best performers in the Northern and Western Europe and those lagging behind in the Southeast of the continent and this difference has remained since the first edition of the index in 2011. The East-West and North-South divides still persist, but the index shows that there is a catching-up process with EU11 countries.

The comparison of data shows the catching-up of the EU11 was most dynamic in the 2011-2014 period after which the process slowed down or was reversed for some countries.

The results of the index 2021 show that three EU11 countries – Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia – are close to but do not outperform the average benchmark of 60 points of the EU14+2 group with respectively 58, 55 and 55 points.

Index 2021 shows the trajectory of the new EU member states convergence with the rest, but there are cases of divergence of some countries indicated in the categories of Democracy and Governance. In Democracy, Hungary witnessed a significant drop of 7 positions and 17 score points  and 4 positions and 6 points drop in Governance too from 2011 to 2021, while Poland dropped by 3 positions and 7 points  in Governance in the same period from 2011 to 2021.

The divergence trends may indicate changing views of the catching-up paradigm by some political leaders in CEE, who are rejecting the emulation of the “Western” counterparts, at least in democracy and governance and cherry-picking their participation in the European project.

Here are several findings in index 2021, which confirm also the results of previous editions of the index, as follows:

The EU11 as a group are still far from the top performers of the EU14+2 and their average scores are closest to the average benchmarks in the Economy and further away, but equally distant to the average scores in Quality of Life, Democracy and Governance, where the catching-up is slower.

The new EU member states still differ in many respects from their counterparts in EU14+2, but at the same time make up a diverse group themselves.

There are some findings that defy common preconceptions, e.g. several of the CEE countries have the lowest inequality levels in the EU – Slovakia (1st among 35 countries), Slovenia (2nd) and the Czech Republic (3rd) are the least unequal countries among the 35 countries according to the Gini indicator. But Bulgaria (34th), Lithuania (33rd) and Latvia (32nd) are the countries with the highest inequality and among the last in the ranking.

As in previous editions of the index, the cluster analysis divides the countries into groups with similar characteristics and provides another perspective of the Index 2021. Estonia is the only country from the EU11 group, which entered the second cluster by overall score. However, there is no EU11 country in the first cluster of best performers. The EU11 countries are not represented in the best performing clusters in the Economy category, there is only one new EU member state represented in best scoring Democracy clusters and fare slightly better in Quality of Life and Governance top clusters with three CEE countries in each of them.

The analyses show that there seems to be geographic and time patterns in the Catch-Up Index dynamics. For example, the top clusters consist of best performing countries in Western core and Northern Europe while the last two clusters consist of the candidate countries located in Southeastern Europe, which are falling behind.

The geographic patterns are shown in the cluster map by overall scores: all countries in the clusters four to six are exclusively concentrated on the Balkans or around it, while no country from this region is in the better performing clusters one to three. This creates a picture of the dividing lines in Europe between the Balkans and the rest. The comparison between clusters in the Index 2011 and Index 2021 by overall score shows that the new member states as a whole have moved up to the better performing clusters, catching-up with a number of EU14+2 countries and leaving the last two clusters to the EU candidate countries in Southeastern Europe.

Furthermore, the trends in the ranking and scores show that the catching-up and the changes were most dynamic from 2011 to the 2014-2016 period, after which there is a slowdown of the process. The changes in the period 2011-2021 happen mostly within the EU11 group, compared to the EU14+2 of old member states and the EU candidate countries.

Global Catch-Up Index

In addition to the regular Catch-Up Index, this year the Global Catch-Up Index came into existence expanding the comparison to 57 countries. The Global Index includes several groups of countries – the EU member states – “old” and “new”, the candidate and potential candidate countries, the countries closely associated with the EU – such as the European Economic Area and Switzerland, EU’s neighbors that are former socialist countries too and in different ways engaged with the EU, including those in Central Asia. The rest are a number of countries around the world – Canada, the US, China, Russia, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Israel. The methodology followed largely the model of the Catch-Up Index with the indicators divided into Economy, Quality of Life, Democracy and Governance categories.

In the global ranking, the winner is Norway (1st out of 74 countries with 74 points), followed by Ireland with an identical score (2nd with 74 points) with a minimal difference after the decimal separator.

The best performing EU11 country in the global ranking is Estonia (20th out of 57 countries with 60 points), followed closely by Slovenia (21st with 59 points), which are part of the third cluster of good performers.

The EU countries dominate the best performing clusters, along with those most closely associated with them such as the EEA and Switzerland or recent member UK. The other developed Western-style democracies around the world perform generally remarkably well in each of the four categories and in the overall global ranking. In Quality of Life, which is measured by education, life expectancy and inequality indicators, the European countries give up the first two spots to two Asian democracies – South Korea and Japan – but continue to perform excellently.

As a whole, the EU11 countries outperform their counterparts outside of the EU (i.e. the former socialist block members) across the board. Several of the EU11 countries hold their own against a number of developed countries, including in Quality of Life, Democracy and Governance, with Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the three Baltic countries generally outshining the others.

The EU’s candidate countries generally fall behind the EU11 in the ranking, but themselves perform better than the countries in EU’s neighborhood and in Central Asia. The EU neighbors – Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia fare better than their counterparts further East, despite they lag behind the countries in CEE, who are EU member states. The Central Asian countries as a whole perform poorly and occupy the last two clusters, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan in Democracy and Kazakhstan in Economy, Quality of Life and Governance.

The online platform at http://www.TheCatchUpIndex.eu allows users to view and work interactively with the data, creating their own “catching up” models and comparisons across countries and indicators.

The report “Where Are They Now? Findings of the European Catch-Up Index 2021” is available in English also in www.TheCatchUpIndex.eu

The report presents the findings of the European Catch-Up Index project of the European Policies Initiative (EuPI) of Open Society Institute – Sofia Foundation (OSI-Sofia) supported by a grant from Open Society Foundations (OSFs). This product is for non-commercial use only. The views expressed in the report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of OSI-Sofia or OSFs.


Marin Lessenski