Though I say "European," I'd like to concentrate on award programs that are located in the German-speaking countries - Germany, Austria and Switzerland. They make up the majority of the European web-awards, probably up to 80% of them.
With few exceptions, European award programs are run by private individuals, not institutions, and they cater mostly to personal websites. As a result, you will find very few award programs with a clear, structured code of evaluation. All the better programs have clearly defined sets of criteria, but the actual evaluation is usually based on the impression a site makes on the evaluator.
In most cases, then, the evaluation is subjective. Since it reflects the evaluator's taste and preferences, not the prowess of the applying webmaster, the result of an evaluation can provoke a lot of discussion between the awardmaster and the webmaster.
The point of these discussions is normally not, "I should have gotten 15 points for clean HTML." More often it's, "How come you didn't like my page?" Depending on the individuals involved, this can produce either enlightening discussions on numerous web-design topics or bitter flame-wars, which spill over into various forums, guestbooks and other public places.
Types of Awards
To make it simple, there are really only two types of European web-awards:
1) The "Take-It-Away Award": You can have them just by asking. There are thousands of these awards, most of them assembled in indices where you can apply for hundreds with a single mouse-click. An hour later you'll find them in your mailbox with a standard comment and a link to where you can download the graphic. They usually come with a stern admonition to place a return link on your mainpage. In a prominent place, of course. Well ...
2) The "Serious Award": You know them when you see them. Usually they form a whole site within a site, with a special layout and design, lots of stuff to read, sophisticated presentation of winning sites, a history of applications, intricate award-design - personalized and/or with serial numbers - and a clear set of criteria. More recently they display their international ratings, such as Award Sites! and Website Awards.
All the serious awardmasters are connected somehow. They belong to a few very select award indices and they do communicate a lot. Unfortunately, there is still a sense of competition, but it does serve a useful purpose. While they watch what is happening among themselves, or in the rest of Europe and United States, they try very hard to maintain their own style and develop a better framework for evaluating sites. On that point they close ranks, exchanging heated arguments over every single change in the rules or procedures.
The whole process of evaluating sites and giving out awards is constantly moving, shifting, adjusting, and smoothing out, instead of hardening into some rigid scheme. Naturally, this is a very slow and often tiresome process.
To become an accepted awardmaster with a serious award program, you have to be very patient and sort of tough, not to say thick-skinned. A large part of the audience is unaware of the difficulties and labor involved in a good award program, and many awardmasters are frustrated over being ridiculed for their efforts or being accused of self-aggrandizement.
Then there is the (very German) question: What makes you qualified to evaluate my work? I can imagine a time when awardmasters will have to go through special courses and complete a test to obtain a permit to evaluate websites - for a fee, of course. Although a possibility, I hope it never happens.
The criteria that is being developed now by European awardmasters is very comprehensive, and it considers all the aspects of web-design. Not just the aesthetics, but usability and accessibility as well as meaningful content.
Contrast this with some of the "official" awards - including prize-money and sponsoring - given out by certain institutions, where typically Art Directors vote for the best websites. Sometimes their choices make honest awardmasters pale with anger ...
Most serious American award programs have similar criteria, though European awards may place additional emphasis on elegant design - that subjective factor again. Still, there is not much demand for the latest high-tech gimmicks. A fancy Flash-intro does not automatically make a winner!
Right now I see a shift to solid, browser- and platform-independent pages with good content, presented in an aesthetic but low-key fashion. Pages must be fast-loading. Since the flat rate experiments in Germany have been thwarted by the local t-company, people have become more cost-conscious. Surfing in Germany is very expensive!
The criteria is particularly hard for business sites, which may find it close to impossible to win any European awards. If you do apply with a business site, make sure you are the owner. You will have a slim chance at best if you apply with a site you made for a client.
You'll often encounter the language barrier when you try to apply for European web-awards. Well, don't get discouraged. All over Europe people learn English in school, and a little practice won't harm them :) In most cases, sites in English are readily accepted.
You may want to scan the text for a phrase like "nur deutsche Seiten" or "nur deutschsprachige Seiten," which means "only for german-language sites." If you find one of them, it might be hopeless. But even if you miss the phrase and apply for the award, don't worry. You will not be flamed. The awardmasters will consider the language barrier as their own shortcoming!
A small piece of advice: If you translate your application with one of the webbots, please send your English text as well! Most of these translations are total gibberish and very hard to understand. It's often easier to translate your text with a dictionary.