To ask the question is to invite a deluge of answers—all of them correct, depending on who's doing the telling. Who makes the best chocolate in Europe? Well, that would be Pierre Marcolini of Belgium, or is it Godiva? Germany makes the best cars—BMW or Mercedes. But then there are those who think the mini Le Smart Car is pretty smart. Finland's Nokia all but revolutionized the global cell-phone industry. It's still a trend-setter for telephone markets worldwide. Yet the days when it was considered hotly entrepreneurial are long gone. Today, that laurel goes to Joost, whose founders are fresh from a series of prior mega-triumphs, among them Skype. But how to choose? Any number of European start-ups could vie for the honor. The key word here is European. In contrast to the past, we're not talking Silicon Valley.
Big things are happening in Europe these days, and the rest of the world should take note. Europe is rediscovering the core of its enduring dynamism, best summed up, perhaps, as the strength of place. In a globalized world, where everything is the same, you sometimes want a particular thing, the genuine article, rooted in its milieu. That no longer means old, traditional or charming. Today, it's more often something that has evolved, winning in global competition through sheer quality and distinctiveness. NEWSWEEK offers a handful of uniquely European successes:
BEST PLACE TO GROW OLD
Birgitta Rembe, minus a third of her right lung, arrived back home a couple of weeks ago. Her cancer operation at Stockholm's Karolinska University Hospital had gone well. It cost her nothing. The 77-year-old retired Swedish journalist then spent two weeks at a rehabilitation clinic—free of charge. She did group calisthenics every day for two weeks and worked her way up to a 1.5-kilometer walk on her last day. After she returned to her apartment, she continued to get a helping hand. "Home helpers" do her grocery shopping, laundry and housecleaning. Because Rembe has a decent pension from 40 years in journalism, these services don't come free. They'll cost her—hang on—€72 a month.
Sweden might just be the best place in Europe to grow old. The Finns or the Danes might quarrel with that. So would some Swedes, who complain that services have declined since the glory days of the 1970s. But Rembe and her husband, Rolf, are living testimony to a system that is generous but sensible—and that works. Now 81, Rolf had heart-bypass surgery in January 2002; nine months later he ran a 10K race. "We've paid our taxes for all these years," says Birgitta. "Now we're getting our money back."
One of Sweden's strengths—a strength that the rest of Europe frequently tries to emulate—has been its ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances. Elder care is no exception. Until the early 1990s, the burden of health care for the aged fell on hospitals, swelling the number of elderly patients to unsustainable levels. "We had a real bed-blocking problem," says Karin Hellqvist, deputy director of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. So in 1992 Sweden shifted the responsibility to county and municipal governments. Where possible, the elderly were moved out of costly hospitals and into their own homes, supported by the sort of home-help network Birgitta Rembe enjoys. Within a year of the reform, the over-65 hospital population was cut in half.
More radically still, in 1999 Sweden overhauled its state pension system. As in many countries, the old Swedish one-size-fits-all scheme was buckling under the weight of a rapidly aging population. The state, backed by a cross-party consensus, replaced the plan with a so-called notional defined contribution scheme. The new plan indexes public pensions to individual earnings and overall life-expectancy rates. This gave it the flexibility to adjust to revenue shifts, the state of the economy and demographic changes. The new scheme needed tinkering, but the World Bank now cites it as a model for countries facing pension-plan insolvency. Uppsala University economist Edward Palmer, who helped design it, says countries from Germany to Japan are showing keen interest. Consider it the triumph, once again, of the Swedish model.