The character of European government has changed significantly. In the past, absolute rule by a single individual was the most prevalent form of government. Kings ruled France and England, and czars ruled Russia. For a while, Mongol khans controlled much of Eastern Europe, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire guarded the Bosporus. Other past European governments were oligarchies, in which a select few held power. Ancient Sparta and Medieval Venice are cases in point. But democracies also made an appearance in the past, and democratic institutions are dominant in the various types of European governments today.
The majority of European governments are republics. In a republic, elected officials govern the land. The government of France is typical. The French populace elects a president and two legislative bodies: the National Assembly and the Senate. The president appoints a prime minister who takes charge of governmental affairs. The National Assembly has the power to terminate the tenure of the prime minister by a no-confidence vote. If this happens, the president must choose a new prime minister. Other governments, such as those of Croatia and Estonia, are very similar. An alternate name for this type of government is "parliamentary democracy." Not all republics are exactly the same. For example, the parliament appoints the prime minister in Finland, and the presidency has no real power in Greece. In Moldova, the parliament elects the president instead of the people. The Ukrainian government has only one legislative body.
Some European governments, such as Germany, are federal republics. A federal republic is a union of states or similar entities. Governmental powers are divided between the federal government and the states. Germany's federal government is similar to a parliamentary democracy, with a president, bicameral legislature and chancellor (equivalent to a prime minister). However, to protect the rights of the German states, one of the two legislative chambers called the Bundesrat has the constitutional power to veto adverse federal legislation. Other federal republics are Austria and Switzerland. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a federal union unites an autonomous Serbian state with the rest of the nation.
The United Kingdom is a good example of a current European constitutional monarchy. The monarch is theoretically the head of the government, but has no real power. Political power resides in the prime minister and the House of Commons, the elected legislative body. The Scandinavian countries also have constitutional monarchies, as do Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Lichtenstein.
Many East European nations used to have socialist republics in which the Communist party was the dominant power. Albania adhered to strict Marxist ideology longer than any other European nation. In 1998, a new constitution made Albania a parliamentary democracy, and socialist traditions are gradually being abandoned.
The pope enjoys absolute sovereignty over a small state called Vatican City. It is a remnant of the fairly extensive Papal States that once extended across central Italy. A Papal Commission administers the state.
Andorra has an unusual government. Traditionally, the French king and the Spanish bishop of Urgel exercised executive power in Andorra. Now the president of France has replaced the king, and the power of both heads of state is greatly reduced. Actual political power resides in a General Council.
- "Webster's Universal Dictionary and Thesaurus"; 2002
- Oracle Think Quest: Europe
- Central Intelligence Agency: The World Fact Book
- Encyclopedia.com: France
- U.S. Department of State: Background Note---Croatia
- Encyclopedia.com: Germany
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images