Can we talk about shared European values?

The notion of ‘values’ in Europe occupies an important place in discussions between the member states of the European Union, especially in the context of recent crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic or the war in Ukraine. But can we really speak of common values on a continent-wide scale when these countries have such different histories and developments? A recent article by sociologist Olivier Galland sheds light on this question.

Some European countries are united in the European Union (EU), which is characterised by a common economic and political project. Nevertheless, its member states still retain a certain degree of independence. In addition to the differences that may exist between EU countries and those outside of the EU, the unity of the Union is sometimes called into question, especially when certain countries, especially in the East, rely on conservative values.

    • Galland O., 2021, Les valeurs des Européens convergent-elles ?, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, vol. 59-2, no. 2, 2021, pp. 19-38.

    Colin Poubel  is a member of the Labex SMS Master’s programme network, University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès :

Values, a complex concept

The main difficulty when discussing values is defining exactly what they mean. This can include positions on moral, religious, civic and political issues, among others. This article is based on the results of the European Values Survey (EVS), which has been conducted every nine years since 1981. The various questions are grouped into themes relating to religion, work, family and politics.

This survey is extremely rich because it allows these indicators to be measured over a long period and for many European countries. The questions ask individuals to place themselves on a scale, which then makes it possible to calculate average scores for each country and compare them from year to year.

However, this type of survey poses a difficulty: the countries surveyed tend to change between different periods, as do the questions asked. For example, the first wave in 1981 did not include Eastern European countries. To overcome this problem, only waves after 1981 were included. There are 16 countries selected for this study: Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Towards the liberalisation of standards

Since the 1970s, individuals have been favouring and developing cultural practices that challenge taboos inherited from religions. This phenomenon, also known as ‘cultural liberalism’, is often contrasted with more traditional and rigid religious practices.

Based on the EVS results, the values of European citizens can be examined on several dimensions. One is the ‘religiosity versus cultural liberalism’ dichotomy, which helps to understand the evolution of citizens’ relationship with religion in a country over time. The second dimension is based on notions of trust and integration: it measures how much citizens trust each other, as well as their level of political and associative engagement.

If we look at how countries’ values have evolved in relation to these dimensions between 1990 and 2017, we see that all countries position themselves differently. For example, the French may be less religious than the Germans, but the latter have higher levels of trust and integration. Equally, Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Bulgaria and Slovakia, seem to have more religious values than Western European countries. Therefore, no common ‘European values’ appear to be highlighted based on these dimensions; the values of the citizens from each country reflect their respective histories.

However, if we look at the evolution of countries’ values over time, we see that they all follow roughly the same trend: religion becomes less important while trust and integration increase in all the countries analysed, although this phenomenon is less pronounced in the Eastern countries. The only exception to this observation is Bulgaria, which is moving in the opposite direction with regard to religion, towards more traditional values. This can be explained by the massive emigration, especially of young people, since the 1980s. The absence of a young population in Bulgaria, or at least its diminished size, makes it difficult to challenge traditional values, which have in turn been strengthened.

Although the values of Europeans differ from country to country, they are generally moving in the same direction: religion is becoming less important, in favour of a general trust in others and participation in public life through associations or political engagement.

What is the relationship to authority in Europe?

This cultural liberalism process is often seen, especially in the media, as fundamentally anti-authoritarian. Undeniably, the major movements of the early 1970s, such as May 1968 in France or the Stonewall riots in the United States, were strongly characterised by a rejection of the institutions of the time.

Subsequently, adherence to authority seems relatively incompatible with the values of cultural liberalism at the beginning of the period under consideration: supporting increased individual freedoms often implies being against authority, and vice versa. However, this opposition becomes less pronounced over time for Western countries. The phenomenon is reversed for Eastern European countries, with the exception of Slovakia, where rejection of authority seems to be more pronounced in 2017 than in 1990.

This trend identified in Western countries may seem to contradict the protest movements mentioned above. However, it can be explained by the fact that citizens make a distinction between private and public freedom; the expression of different acquired freedoms must not disrupt public life and must therefore be more regulated. In addition, many of the demands of the movements in the 1970s – especially with regard to women’s rights – have been achieved and are to some extent already considered “won”. As a result, sovereign institutions are no longer seen as adversaries, but rather seem to be making rules to preserve these gains.

A strong attachment to democracy

In February 2021, The Economist magazine proposed the Democracy Index, which measures the extent to which a country respects a number of democratic principles, such as free elections, civil liberties or freedom of the press. The scores of European countries varied widely: Russia scored 3.31 out of 10, Norway 9.81 and Hungary 6.56.

However, this index does not allow us to understand how attached the citizens of the countries surveyed are to democracy. Is a country less democratic because its citizens reject the system? To answer this question, three indicators of Europeans’ values can be compared: attachment to democracy, perceptions of their state of democracy and illiberalism. These indicators are based on responses that have recently been included in the EVS, allowing more countries to be considered.

Adherence to democratic principles is generally strong, with scores ranging from 7 to 9.5 on a scale of 10. They also tend to be slightly higher than the country’s democracy index. The Russians score the lowest, remaining attached to democratic principles even though they are rarely actually applied. Overall, Europeans are attached to the idea of democracy, regardless of its specific application in their country.

Citizens are also reasonably aware of the level of democracy in their country, even if their perception is slightly lower than the indications of the Democracy Index. Russian citizens are an exception and consider their country to be much more democratic than it actually is, with a perception twice as high as the actual score.

The final indicator is that of illiberalism. Liberal democracies are based on the principle of allowing citizens a certain degree of freedom to live their lives as they wish, without imposing a fixed idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ life. Illiberalism refers to the tendency to impose a particular way of life, which in Europe often manifests itself as an adherence to Christian culture and a certain traditionalism. This is an approach taken by some leaders of Eastern European countries particularly in Hungary and Poland.

This indicator was constructed from two questions asking people to identify characteristics they consider to be “essential to democracy”. Among these characteristics, disagreement with the statements ‘civil rights protect people from government oppression’ and ‘women have the same rights as men’ indicates a strong tendency towards illiberalism.

However, European citizens seldom seem to uphold these ideas, even when their leaders defend them. The average score observed is 1.69 out of 10 and does not exceed 3. There are still differences between countries, but the trends observed do not necessarily correspond to the countries one would expect: Hungary and Poland have relatively low scores (1.82 and 1.3 respectively), while France has one of the highest scores (2.63).

Divisions over European values

It is difficult to conclude that there are, in fact, common ‘European values’ shared by all countries. On the issue of religion and cultural liberalism, the differences between Eastern and Western European countries are particularly marked. However, the values of European citizens are evolving in a similar way, tending towards a liberalisation of norms in most countries. Europeans therefore seem to be attracted by the same ideals of democracy and individual freedom, and are making changes within their countries to try to achieve them.

Newsletter: Due to various recent crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the issue of shared European values has arisen sharply among the member states of the European Union.

But can we really speak of common values on a continental scale when its countries have such different histories and traditions?

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC BY-NC-ND
To see more of her drawings, visit

Image credits in CC: Freepik, Flaticon, Paul J., GOWI


For other articles in  English

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Colin Poubel (17 juin 2024). Can we talk about shared European values? Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 23 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

Colin Poubel

Colin Poubel est membre du réseau des masters du Labex SMS, université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès :

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