Stodgy. That's how I used to think of European stocks, what with Europe's aging population, constant labor issues, historically anemic GDP growth. I used to turn to higher-growth regions like Asia and South America.

But I've changed my opinion on European stocks in recent years. You may want to take a second look, too.

A breath of fresh air
A lot has changed in Europe over the past five years. The euro currency that hit the market in 2002 is now at its highest level against the dollar and yen. Former Soviet-bloc countries like Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia joined the European Union in 2004. And pro-market leaders have been elected in Germany and France.

The trends are so positive, in fact, that The Economist expects GDP growth in Europe to surpass the U.S.'s and Japan's in 2007.

That growth is reflected in European stocks. The Vanguard European Stock Index, for instance, with top holdings in Total SA (NYSE:TOT) and Novartis (NYSE:NVS), is up 211% since September 2002 -- thoroughly outpacing the U.S.-based Vanguard 500 Index, which has risen 102%.

Investors participating in Motley Fool CAPS, the Fool's free investor-intelligence community, have also noted the promise of European markets. Here are this month's top five European stocks, as rated by more than 65,000 CAPS participants:

Company

Country

CGG Veritas (NYSE:CGV)

France

ICON plc

Ireland

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA   

Spain

Novo Nordisk A/S (NYSE:NVO)

Denmark

Mechel OAO (NYSE:MTL)

Russia

Source: Motley Fool CAPS.

Please bear in mind that these stocks are not formal recommendations, but are offered as jumping-off points for further research.

The veritas will set you free
With crude oil currently trading at more than $80 a barrel, it shouldn't be a surprise to see an oil and gas services company sitting atop this list. But CGG Veritas isn't just any oil and gas company. According to the company's website, CGG Veritas "has the industry's largest fleet of 20 seismic vessels," which are used to map underwater oil wells so major oil companies like Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) know how much Texas tea steeps under the sea.

Moreover, CGG Veritas has already seen tremendous benefits from the merger of CGG and Veritas DGC earlier this year, which consolidated the company's grip on the growing seismic mapping industry.

Over on Motley Fool CAPS, all 158 investors who have rated CGG Veritas think it will outperform the market going forward. The bullish arguments on CAPS are generally based on increased demand for CGG Veritas' services, its competitive advantages, and outsized top-line growth.   

What do you think? Will CGG Veritas continue to beat the market, or is the honeymoon over for the Paris-based company? Make your voice heard about CGG Veritas -- or any stock for that matter -- on Motley Fool CAPS, where 65,000 investors are waiting to hear from you. To get started just click here.

Motley Fool Global Gains is here to help you navigate the complex international stock markets. A free, 30-day trial to our international investing service is yours with just a few clicks.

Fool contributor Todd Wenning has long dreamed of playing lead guitar for Jesse & the Rippers. He owns shares of the Vanguard European Index ETF. Total SA is a Motley Fool Income Investor choice. The Fool's disclosure policy backpacked across Europe after college and returned with its integrity intact.