Purpose – The purpose of this article is to explore diversity in competence models across Europe and consider the extent to which there is sufficient common ground for a common European approach to underpin the European Qualifications Framework. Design/methodology/approach The paper uses a literature review and interviews with policy makers. Findings Despite the central role of competence in policy initiatives, conceptual approaches to competence vary not only between but also within different member states. This diversity embodies not only language issues but also fundamental cultural differences in approaches to skill formation. Whether the models have sufficient common ground to permit a “bestfit” Europeanwide approach is open to question, although this is clearly an essential prerequisite for removing barriers to labour mobility. Despite initiatives like the European Qualifications Framework there is still no consensus for adopting a common competence model and policy discussions continue to reveal confusion. Research limitations/implications The focus on policy discussions at the European level may be a limitation, and readers should see this as the introductory scene setting to more detailed discussions in the following papers of important developments within member states. Beyond this, much is happening at the level of sectors and occupations that is the focus for practical implementation. Practical implications The paper highlights the urgent need to develop a coherent conceptual underpinning for competence descriptors in qualifications frameworks that will work as a bestfit approach across Europe. Without this, occupational and intersector mobility will be hindered. Originality/value The paper offers the most comprehensive assessment of European approaches to competence to date.