65 Europe: Overview

“The peculiar value of geography lies in its fitness to nourish the mind with ideas and furnish the imagination with pictures.”

– Charlotte Mason, English educator and reformer, 1842-1923

Physical Geography


The idea of Europe as a continent separate from Asia is a somewhat arbitrary European concept. In reality, Europe is a series of peninsulas on the western edge of a large landmass called “Eurasia.” Europe’s southern, northern, and western boundaries are relatively easy to detect. The southern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea; the northern boundary is the Arctic Ocean, and the western boundary is the Atlantic Ocean. Europe’s eastern boundary is more difficult to define. The boundary between Europe and Asia is really more of a cultural/historical distinction than a physical one. Conventionally, Europe’s southeastern boundary with Asia is marked by the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, and the small sliver of water that links the two – a waterway that passes through Turkey known as the Bosporus (technically speaking, the small triangle of land west of Istanbul is in Europe, while the rest of Turkey is in Asia). The rest of Europe’s boundary with Asia is usually defined, moving from south to north, by the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea, the Ural River, and the Ural Mountains.  Notice that our discussion of how this fits with Russia will be in our chapters on the Russian Domain.



Europe’s physical regions are generally placed in three categories: lowlands, uplands, and alpine regions. Lowlands, as you might guess, are flat areas of low elevation. Alpine regions are mountainous areas with very high elevations. Uplands are something in between – areas that are at significantly lower elevations than the alpine regions, but that are by no means flat, containing areas of hills, low mountains, and eroded plateaus.


Aerial photograph of sunrise at the rock of Gibraltar.
Sunrise on the rock of Gibraltar. Photo by Mark Freeth on Flickr.

Europe’s upland regions are concentrated in three major areas – the northern European uplands, the central European uplands, and the southern European uplands. The northern European uplands are found in the northern British Isles, primarily in Scotland, and on the Scandinavian peninsula, which is shared by Norway and Sweden. Although the elevations are relatively low here, the northern uplands contain some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery. Europe’s central uplands extend in an arc from southeastern France, across southern Belgium and Germany, and into the Czech Republic. Europe’s southern uplands are found on the major peninsulas that extend south into the Mediterranean Sea: The Iberian Peninsula, occupied by Spain and Portugal; the Italian Peninsula; the Balkan Peninsula, which extends across southeastern Europe from the Black Sea to the Adriatic Sea; and the Greek Peninsula, which extends southward from the Balkan Peninsula. Like the northern and central uplands, these are areas of relatively modest elevations, but which  are dominated by rugged landscapes.


Aerial photograph of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains.
Pyrenees. Photo by Iris Vallejo on Pixabay.

Europe’s alpine regions are divided into three primary mountain ranges, each running roughly east-to-west across the heart of Europe. These are areas of extremely rugged landscapes and very high elevations, some extending above 18,000 feet. They include the Pyrenees, which run along the border between France and Spain; the Alps, which dominate the landscapes of Switzerland and Austria, and which also spill over into Italy, France, Germany, and Slovenia; and the Carpathians, a crescent-shaped mountain range that runs from the Polish-Slovak border, through western Ukraine, and across much of northern Romania.

Lowland regions can be found scattered throughout Europe – particularly along its major rivers, but Europe’s largest lowland region, and its most extensive landform region overall, is the North European Plain. The North European Plain is a huge triangle of lowlands running from the Atlantic Ocean, across northern Europe, and all the way to the Ural Mountains. Part of it is north of the English Channel and Baltic Sea, including the southern British Isles, southern Sweden, and nearly all of Finland. It runs continuously across northern France, northern Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and northern Germany, and includes nearly all of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. It then broadens to include nearly all of the European part of the Russian Domain. Its physical landscapes would be familiar to any Midwesterner. Like the Midwest, some of it is remarkably flat, while other sections have a gently rolling landscape. There are a few hills scattered throughout the region, but elevations are generally very low. The North European Plain contains Europe’s most important industrial cities and its most densely populated rural areas. Unfortunately, because its flatness offers few natural defenses, it has also been the setting for some of the most vicious fighting in Europe’s wars.



Europe’s climate patterns are relatively simple. There are only three major climate regions, and all three are similar to climates found in the United States. The first is the Marine West Coast climate. It dominates northwestern Europe, including Ireland, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, most of France, the western coasts of mid-latitude Scandinavia, and the northern coast of Spain. It is a somewhat colder version of the climate found in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. The temperature patterns feature warm to mild summers. The winters range from cool to cold, but these places are warm relative to other places at such high latitudes. London, for example, is located about 700 miles farther north than Chicago, but it rarely experiences winters that are nearly as cold. That is because this is a maritime climate (see Chapter 41). The temperatures are moderated year-round by air masses that are driven off the Atlantic by the westerlies. As for precipitation, this part of Europe is generally wet year-round, with slightly higher precipitation in summer. This is also because of the westerlies, which drive moisture in off the Atlantic Ocean year-round, giving places like London a deservedly soggy reputation.


Coastal photograph in Greece.
Porto Katsiki, Greece.
Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash.

A second major climate region is the Mediterranean climate, which is named for the Mediterranean Sea. This is the climate of southern Europe, and is similar to the climate of southern California. It is the dominant climate of Portugal, Greece, and most of Spain and Italy. This climate can also be found all along the Mediterranean coast, such as the southern coast of France. The temperature patterns of this region feature warm to hot summers, and cool but generally mild winters, with temperatures moderated by the influence of the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this climate is its precipitation pattern. Summers are dry, and sometimes virtually cloudless. (It is no coincidence that the Italian and French Riviera is one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth.) The dry summers are caused by the huge sub-tropical high that dominates the Sahara Desert. It shifts north in the summer and settles on this region. Like California, winters are noticeably wetter, as the subtropical high shifts back off to the south, and the westerlies sink south to bring moisture in from the Atlantic.

Europe’s third major climate is humid continental, which is the same climate found in the Midwestern United States. This climate dominates central and eastern Europe, including most of Germany and Scandinavia, and eastern Europe from Poland to Bulgaria. This climate features warm summers and cold winters, with temperature extremes increasing with distance from the moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. This area is not quite as rainy as northwestern Europe, but is generally wet year-round, with maximum precipitation in summer.

There are a few smaller climate regions in Europe, including a semi-arid steppe climate in central Spain. Sub-arctic and arctic climates are found in northern Scandinavia, featuring brief, cool summers and long, bitter winters. Finally, there is a thin band of humid-subtropical climate from northern Italy to Serbia, which is similar to the U.S. South, featuring hot summers, cool winters, and high precipitation year-round.


Historical Geography

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Europe

The earliest evidence of human activity in Europe dates back about 40,000 years, and some of the first urban-based civilizations evolved there around 3000 BCE. In many ways, though, Europe traces its cultural roots to the Classical Period. Focused on ancient Greek civilizations (which peaked in the 400s to 300s BCE) and ancient Rome (which peaked between the 200s BCE and 400s CE), the Classical Period was an era of rapid development. In many ways, these cultures poured the foundations for Western civilization, and can be viewed as the beginning point for European ideas about engineering, politics, art, warfare, religion, and language.


For centuries, Rome largely dictated the economic and political order of Europe. When Rome declined and fell, Europe plunged into economic and political chaos. What followed was a period known as the Middle Ages (or Medieval Period – medieval meaning “middle”), which lasted from around the 500s to the 1300s. This period is also sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages.” That term implies that, after centuries of enlightenment, Europe plunged into cultural darkness. That is overstating it a little, but certainly Europe experienced a stagnation in technological, economic, and cultural progress.

The political and economic system that dominated the Middle Ages was known as the feudal system. Europeans, desperate for security, delivered their fate into the hands of a warrior class, known as the aristocracy (or nobility). Europe fragmented into hundreds of small feudal estates. On these estates, all of the land was owned by, and the political system controlled by, a member of the aristocracy. The aristocracy held ultimate power over the vast majority of the rural farming population, who were known as serfs (or peasants). The aristocratic ruler and his army provided security for the serfs. In exchange, the serfs toiled in the fields and pledged their loyalty to the feudal aristocrat. The aristocracy often led lavish lives within their castle strongholds, while most serfs lived short, miserable lives in abject poverty.

In some cases, a feudal estate was totally independent from any higher authority, notably in Germany and Italy, which were made up hundreds of small baronies and principalities (the tiny modern-day countries of Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and Andorra are all holdovers from the period). In other cases, these feudal estates would bind together into larger kingdoms, often with a complex hierarchy of aristocrats aligned beneath a monarch.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth,” and the period that followed the Middle Ages has long been characterized as a rebirth of the ideals and ambitions of the Classical Period. This movement, which began in Italian cities like Florence, Milan, Rome, and Venice in the 1300s, involved a rapid acceleration in technological and economic development. The spirit of the Renaissance soon spread from Italy to much of the rest of southern Europe – notably to Spain and Portugal – and then soon to much of the rest of the continent. It was a revolutionary time for European science, politics, commerce, and the arts. Europe entered the 1300s as a second-rate region. Over the next few centuries, it would emerge as a center of global power, partly because of the evolution of a new economic system.

Capitalism slowly replaced feudalism in the late Middle Ages. Feudalism, based on the aristocracy’s ownership of pretty much everything of value, and the obligation of the serfs to work for them, was replaced by a system where private property abounded, and individuals competed with one another for profit. Capitalism stemmed from dramatic improvements in European agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation, and from the rise of the merchant class.


During Europe’s Middle Ages, merchants were a group of modest wealth. They purchased whatever excess goods the farmers and artisans produced, and sold them for a profit. These profits were meager, however, because most of Europe’s population was poor, and limited transportation restricted the pool of potential customers. That changed around the 1300s. Now, farmers and artisans had more to sell, the population had more money to spend, and improving transportation greatly expanded prospects for imports and exports. The merchants of European cities coordinated and profited from local, then regional and, eventually, global trade. Soon, some of Europe’s merchants were becoming as wealthy and powerful as the aristocracy.

The merchant class were not a cooperative group, but a competitive one. So, a merchant was always on the lookout for new goods to buy and new customers to sell them to. This is an important element of capitalism. It is both a very powerful and a very “hungry” economic system. Competition forced each merchant to supply more, better, and cheaper goods. Capitalism is not without its flaws (see Chapter 56), but there is no doubting its power. This new economic system contributed to the growth of European technology, commerce, and trade, and is fundamentally responsible for the region’s emergence as a global power.


Exploration, Colonization, and Industrialization

In the 1400s, Portuguese ships began sailing down the coast of Africa, establishing trading outposts along the way. By 1488, Portuguese ships had rounded the southern tip of Africa, and were establishing sea trade with India, and many points beyond, like Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. Portuguese ships were soon transporting a huge volume of goods from Africa and Asia to Europe. Europe was on its way to dominating global sea trade.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian navigator working for the Spanish government, proposed the idea of reaching Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic. This, famously, led to the “discovery” of the Americas. Soon, Portuguese, French, British, and Dutch ships were also exploring this “New World.”

Europe’s first colonial period, which began around the early 1500s, involved the colonization of the Americas. Brazil was colonized by Portugal, and Spain colonized most of the rest of mainland Latin America. North America was colonized by Spain, Britain, and France, and the Caribbean was colonized by numerous European countries. The first colonial period resulted in a flood of wealth for the European colonizers, and helped speed the region toward the Industrial Revolution.

In the late 1700s, the United States became the first European colony to gain its independence, followed by most of the other major colonies in the Americas during the 1800s. Despite this independence, most of the Americas remained dependent upon European markets, investors, and factories for a century. And no country in the Americas, even the United States, could rival the military and economic might of the great European empires until the 20th century.


The most important event that led to Europe’s global dominance was the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in Britain in the early 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was the birth of mass production – the rise of the factory. It was made possible by advances in science and technology, the wealth created by exploration and colonization, and the appetite for products created by capitalism. Soon, Britain was producing goods with a speed and abundance previously unimaginable, and the country was on its way to becoming the world’s first global economic superpower. It reinvested much of its profits into creating the world’s most powerful navy, which aided its further colonial expansion. The Industrial Revolution soon spread to much of the rest of western Europe.

Industrialization gave Europe the desire and ability to launch a second colonial push, this time focused on Africa and Asia. The Industrial Revolution exponentially increased the capitalist economies appetite for raw materials and markets. It also gave Europe the wealth, technology, and military firepower to seize those raw materials and markets.

It is not coincidental that the world’s first industrial power would become the world’s largest empire. Britain set out to colonize much of Africa and Asia. At the height of the British Empire, one in four people on earth were ruled directly from London. Many more countries would fall into the British sphere of influence, and were informally colonized. A prominent example is China, which saw huge amounts of its territory and population fall under de facto British rule for more than a half-century. It is remarkable to consider that, of the world’s ten most populous countries, five of them – India, the United States, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh – were once formally ruled by Britain. At one point, it was possible to travel from Cape Town, South Africa, all the way to Baghdad, Iraq, and never leave a British colony. That’s a journey of over 7,000 miles (it’s only about 3,000 miles from Boston to Los Angeles).

Other major imperial powers of this era included the Netherlands, which colonized Indonesia; France, which colonized much of Africa and Indochina (modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos); and Russia, which expanded across Asia to the Pacific. Belgium, Germany, Portugal, and Italy also had significant colonial possessions in Africa.

In 1900, Europe was the center of global power. Nearly all of Africa and Asia was controlled directly or indirectly by a European empire. Nearly all global trade took place on European ships. With the exception of emerging industrial powers like Japan and the United States, Europe had a near monopoly on manufacturing. No country could challenge the military supremacy of the major European powers. Now, more than a century later, Europe is still a wealthy, influential region, but it is no longer dominates the world. This is not because some other region conquered Europe, but because Europe conquered itself in two devastating world wars.


Conflict, Division, and Unification

World War I began in 1914. It was, at first, a regional conflict between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, a complex web of military alliances, geopolitical ambitions, old grudges, and rising nationalism soon plunged the entire continent into war. Germany and the Ottoman Empire sided with Austria-Hungary, while Britain, France, and Russia sided with Serbia.

World War I was the first major conflict to fully employ industrial technology. Machine guns, poison gas, tanks, and aircraft were used extensively for the first time. The “Allies,” those countries aligned with Britain and France, emerged victorious in 1918. The war ended on November 11th (a date that was, for many years, commemorated in the United States as “Armistice Day,” now called “Veterans Day”). More than 19 million people were killed in the war, and it substantially rearranged the map of Europe. Germany was defeated, suffering a significant loss of territory and economic ruin. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire collapsed. From the ruins of the Ottoman Empire emerged the modern state of Turkey. Both Greece and Bulgaria gained territory from the Ottomans, and Albania gained its independence. Austria and Hungary split into two independent countries, and lost territory to Italy and Romania. The newly independent state of Czechoslovakia also emerged from former Austro-Hungarian territory. Another newly independent state was Yugoslavia. Meaning the “Land of the Southern Slavs,” Yugoslavia consisted of Serbia and the small Slavic nations of Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

In the closing days of the war, the Russian tsar was overthrown by revolutionaries, and Russia would become Europe’s first communist state, later called the “Soviet Union.” In the chaos, Russia lost control of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of which became independent. Finally, a newly independent Poland emerged from former Russian and German territory.

In the 1920s, many countries in Europe, particularly the imperial powers of the west, returned to prosperity. A few countries, particularly Germany, Italy, and some of the newer states in eastern Europe, were not so fortunate. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, the economic and political situation in those countries declined even further.

Out of this chaos rose a new political movement known as fascism. Europe’s first fascist leader was Benito Mussolini of Italy. He popularized the term fascism, which is derived from “fasces,” an axe that served in ancient Rome as a symbol of power and unity.

Fascism arose because of, and not in spite of, the political and economic chaos in some European countries. In fact, fascist movements (and those like them) always arise in times of crisis. In a time of great insecurity and weakness, leaders who promise stability and strength, even at the cost of democracy and freedom, are often viewed favorably. Mussolini was one such leader. He promised to restore the glory of Italy as he chipped away at Italian democracy. Mussolini’s success in Italy inspired the rise of Adolf Hitler and the fascist Nazi Party in Germany who, likewise, promised to bring order and strength to their country. In the 1930s, fascist movements also seized power in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Spain.

Fascism is characterized by authoritarianism, oppression, and militarism. But perhaps its most notorious characteristics are ultra-nationalism and racism. Nationalism, when taken to extremes, can go to some very dark places, and no fascist party took nationalism to a more disturbing place than the Nazi Party. Hitler characterized the German people as part of a supposed Aryan race, the supreme beings on the planet. Anyone else – Asians, Africans, Slavs, Roma, and Jews – were characterized as untermenschen, or inferior humans.

The Jews, in particular, suffered greatly under Nazi rule. Hitler was looking for someone to blame for Germany’s economic troubles, and Jews became a handy target. Ultimately, six million Jews – nearly two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population – would be systematically murdered by the Nazis and other fascists. Large numbers of other supposed untermenschen – Roma, Slavs, gay people, political dissidents, and the mentally and physical disabled – were also murdered.

The Nazis believed that Germany was the supreme nation on the planet, and “logic” followed that Germans should therefore control the planet. Hitler aspired to nothing less than global domination. World War II would formally begin on September 1, 1939. For a detailed look at the geography of World War II, see Chapter 50.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, allies during the war, suddenly became adversaries. In the early days of the Cold War, British prime minister Winston Churchill referred to a metaphorical “iron curtain” that had descended across Europe, dividing it between East and West.

When World War II ended, Soviet troops occupied eastern Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. They all became satellite states of the Soviet Union, and were considered part of the “East.” They were members of a Soviet-dominated military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact, and their governments embraced Soviet-style communism. Although nominally independent, they were largely under the control of the Soviets. Any notions of real independence were crushed in Hungary in the 1950s, and again in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. On both occasions, protestors demanding economic and political reforms were brutally suppressed by Soviet forces. These countries would not escape the grip of Moscow until the late 1980s.

Yugoslavia and Albania found themselves in an unusual position during the Cold War. They were both communist states, having been controlled by communist revolutionaries at the end of World War II. Their economies and governments were modeled after the Soviet Union, but they hadn’t been occupied by Soviet troops when the war ended. As a result, they were not satellite states, and their governments enjoyed more sovereignty than those of the Warsaw Pact. Still, because of their adherence to communism, they were usually regarded as part of the East.

The rest of Europe, including major economic powers like Britain, France, Italy, and West Germany, made up the “West.” They were all capitalist countries, and most of them were democracies. Much of western Europe would join the United States and Canada in a military partnership known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The NATO countries were declared opponents of Soviet communism. Some states in the West – Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Switzerland, and Austria – did not join NATO, but were generally more supportive of American policies than Soviet ones.

Germany was divided into two states throughout the Cold War. When World War II ended, British, French, and American troops occupied the western two-thirds of Germany. These areas would become the capitalist country of West Germany. The Soviet Union occupied the eastern third of the country, which became the communist satellite state of East Germany. Berlin was a microcosm of Germany. Although it was located deep in the communist east, the western half of the city was a tiny enclave of capitalist West Germany. To prevent East Germans from escaping to the West, the Soviets quickly built a series of heavily guarded barriers around West Berlin. In the early 1960s, these smaller barriers were replaced by a massive wall, called by the Soviets the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart,” better known simply as the “Berlin Wall.” It was a physical manifestation of Churchill’s iron curtain and, for many, came to symbolize the Cold War.

In 1989, the Soviet Union’s satellite states began to break from Soviet control. The Berlin Wall was torn down, and Germany reunified. In 1990, the Baltic States of the Soviet Union (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) began to openly defy Moscow. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing an end to the Cold War.

The World Wars dominated much of the first half of the 20th century, and the Cold War dominated much of the second half.  2021 will mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War. The last three decades have been generally peaceful in Europe, and probably the most significant event has been the trend toward European unification.

In 1951, six European countries – West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg – founded the European Coal and Steel Community. It eliminated tariffs (import and export taxes) on coal and steel among the member states. This free trade agreement was so successful that in 1958, the same six countries formed the European Economic Community, better known as the Common Market. The Common Market took the idea behind the coal and steel agreement, and expanded it to include all products. Now, anything could be imported or exported among the member states without tariffs. The Common Market proved to be so beneficial that many other countries moved to join. Denmark, Ireland, and Britain joined in the 1970s. Greece, Portugal, and Spain joined in the 1980s.

In 1993, the Common Market was replaced by the European Union (EU). The Common Market’s goal of economic integration continued, but its mission was expanded to include political unification. In the 1990s, Austria, Switzerland, and Finland joined, followed in the 2000s and 2010s by all of the former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe, as well as three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia, and Croatia also joined.


Cultural Geography


Most of the languages in Europe are part of the Indo-European language family, and are derived from the same linguistic source as the languages of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, and Bangladesh. Within the Indo-European family are several subfamilies – languages that are relatively close “cousins,” and have much in common.

The “big three” language subfamilies in Europe are Romance, Germanic, and Slavic. The languages of the Romance subfamily evolved from the language of the Romans – Latin. Romanian, Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese are all Romance languages. The Germanic languages include German, Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Norwegian. The Slavic subfamily includes Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Macedonian, and Czech.

There are a few smaller subfamilies of Indo-European in Europe. The Baltic subfamily includes Latvian and Lithuanian. The last holdouts of the Celtic language subfamily are found in Brittany (northwestern France), Cornwall (southwestern England), Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. A few people in these places speak Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, or Scottish as their first language, but nearly everyone in those areas also speaks English (or in Brittany, French). Greek and Albanian are also Indo-European, and are the only languages in their individual subfamilies.

The only other major language family in Europe is the Uralic family. Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are all Uralic languages, and are similar to one another, but very different from the Indo-European languages, since they originated from a different source.

For an excellent map of the languages of Europe, go to: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Indo-European-languages



Most European countries are nation-States, dominated by one national group, but there are a few multi-national states in the region. Belgium consists of two primary national groups. The Flemings, who speak a dialect of Dutch, occupy the northern half of the country, called Flanders. The Walloons, who speak a dialect of French, occupy the southern half of Belgium, called Wallonia. Bosnia has three major national groups. The largest are the Bosniaks, Muslim Slavs who account for about 48% of the country’s population. The other two groups, the Serbs (37%) and Croats (14%), are culturally related to the peoples of neighboring Serbia and Croatia. Montenegro has a similar mixture of Montenegrin, Serb, Bosniak, and Albanian. Britain consists of an English majority, and the smaller nations of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Cornwall.

Many of Europe’s nation-States contain significant minority populations. This is partly due to the shifting political map of Europe. Countries have unified and dissolved, and war has shifted boundaries. As a result, some individual locations pass from country’s control to another, often leaving members of a European nation cut off from their nation-state.

There are also some ethnic groups who have been minorities in Europe for centuries, but who have retained their distinctiveness – their own languages, cultural customs, and separate ethnic identity. Examples include the Saami, about 80,000 people who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia; and the Basques, about 2 million people who live in northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Many European countries used to have significant Jewish populations, but today there are only about 2 million Jews in Europe, mainly in France and Britain.


Gypsy Caravan.
Photo by Wendy Corniquet from Pixabay.

The Roma are an ethnic group that can be found in many, if not most, European countries. Informally called “Gypsies” (although that term is usually regarded as derogatory), the Roma trace their ancestry to northern India, and began to arrive in Europe in the 1400s. Because they were not permitted to own property in many European countries, they developed a tradition of being itinerant – that is, moving from place to place in family caravans to settle temporarily. Today, there are about 7 million Roma in Europe. They are dispersed throughout the continent, but are especially prevalent in southeastern Europe.

Finally, Europe’s ethnic patterns are becoming more complex as a result of immigration, primarily from Africa and Asia. Europeans sometimes joke about “colonization in reverse,” since many immigrants move to the European country that had once colonized their home country. Indeed, there are many Algerians in France, Indonesians in the Netherlands, and Indians in Britain, to name a few.

(For a discussion of European religion, see Chapter 48).



Excluding Turkey and the Russian Domain, Europe’s total population is approximately 544 million. The six largest countries account for two-thirds of the region’s population: Germany (81 million), France (66 million), Britain (65 million), Italy (61 million), Spain (46 million), and Poland (38 million). Thirty-six smaller countries account for the remaining third of the region’s population.

Europe’s regional TFR (total fertility rate) is 1.6, meaning the average European woman has one or two children in her lifetime. That is well below the replacement rate of 2.1. In fact, every country in Europe is below replacement rate. The highest TFR in Europe is in France (2.0), and the lowest is in Portugal (1.3). As a result, the region has an overall rate of natural increase that is negative. Factoring out migration, Europe’s net population change, based strictly on births and deaths, is -0.2% per year.

Such numbers are typical of a region that is deep into the final stage of the Demographic Transition. Europe’s population is wealthy, highly urbanized, and very well-educated, so people tend to get married later in life, and have few, if any, children. There are significant consequences of such population stagnation and decline. One is that Europe’s population is aging rapidly, so the countries of the region must devote more resources to elder care and pension funds. Another consequence of population decline is the threat of economic stagnation. Every time a European couple decides not to have a child, that is another future worker, consumer, and tax payer that is not being produced. Put simply, it is very difficult to maintain economic growth without population growth.

European countries have attempted to offset population decline with increased immigration, but it has not always gone smoothly. The backlash against immigration in Europe has sometimes been quite severe, and has led to rising social tensions and political crises in some countries.


Political Geography


Full democracies are countries where free elections are the norm, where dissent against the government is tolerated, and a free press is active. Full democracies also feature the “rule of law,” where a set of laws, approved by the people, apply equally to everyone. Partial democracies are countries that have democratic features, such as elections, but also some serious flaws in the democratic process. Such flaws often include suspect elections, government intimidation of the press and opposition politicians, and frequent constitutional changes meant to benefit the ruling party.

Europe is one of the most democratic regions in the world. The vast majority of countries are full democracies, where free elections and rule of law are the norm. The Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, in particular, are often cited as the world’s most democratic countries. For now, only two European countries – Albania and Bosnia – are broadly considered to be partial democracies. It is worth noting, however, that recent political trends in Hungary and Poland have some fearing they may drop off of the “full” democracy list, and onto the “partial” democracy list.


The European Constitution

The ultimate goal of the European Union is political unification. If that is ever accomplished, the EU will be a sort of “United States of Europe.” In the United States of America, each of the fifty states has its own government, local laws, and constitution, and enjoys a good deal of independence. Still, each state is bound by the rules of the U.S. Constitution, is subject to the decisions of the Supreme Court, and is subordinate to the federal government in matters where the constitution grants it power over the states.  If the EU reached full political unification, it would be something quite similar. The individual member countries would still exist, would have their own governments, local laws, and constitutions, but they would be bound by the rules of the European Constitution, the European Court, and subordinate to the European Parliament in Brussels.

In 2004, it appeared that Europe was well on its way to achieving these goals. An enormous step forward was supposed to be the adoption of a common European Constitution. Some of the goals of the constitution were practical – the EU was governed by a complex web of treaties, which would have been replaced by a single, simpler document. It also allowed for more legislation to pass through the European Parliament by simple majority, rather than unanimous consent, streamlining the process. But there was an important symbolic goal, as well. If voters in all member states ratified the constitution, it was seen as a huge milestone in the journey toward genuine political unification.

After it was drafted, the constitution needed to be ratified by all of the member states. The countries that joined the EU after 1993 had already ratified the constitution as part of their membership process. By 2004, it had been ratified in national referendums in Spain and Luxembourg. In 2005, however, voters in both France and the Netherlands stunned Europe by voting “no” on the adoption of the constitution. Because unanimous consent of all member states was required to ratify the constitution, it was effectively dead in the water. All the remaining member states cancelled their ratification votes.

In 2007, representatives from the EU’s member states unanimously adopted the Treaty of Lisbon, which largely accomplished all of the practical goals of the constitution. Still, the symbolic importance of the constitution’s failure with French and Dutch voters was the first sign that not everyone in Europe was happy with the EU’s goal of an “ever closer union.”


 EU Membership

Currently, there are twenty-seven member states of the European Union (there had been twenty-eight prior to Britain’s exit in 2020). Six additional countries have applied for membership, and are currently under consideration: Serbia, Montenegro, Iceland, Macedonia, Turkey, and Albania. A seventh, Bosnia, has applied to join, but is not yet officially under review.

After countries have applied for membership, and are officially recognized as candidates, they must go through a review process that can take years. Poland, for example, applied to join the EU in 1994, and was not admitted until 2004. To become a member, countries must demonstrate a commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. They must also have a stable free-market economy.

It is worth noting that every time a country has joined the EU, some citizens in each country opposed the move. While there are clear benefits to being a member, a country that joins the EU is handing a lot of control over its political and economic destiny to the EU. In fact, a pair of countries that could easily become members have declined to join. Norway and Switzerland are both prosperous, capitalist democracies, but they have elected not to join. At the same time, some countries are desperate to join the EU, and have not met with success. Turkey actually applied to join the EU in 1987 (back when it was still the Common Market), and still hasn’t been admitted. There may be some legitimate political and economic reasons for Turkey’s failure to be admitted. If Turkey did join the EU, it would be, by far, the bloc’s poorest country. Turkey also hasn’t exactly demonstrated the commitment to democracy and human rights that the EU demands. Still, Turkey is suspicious that there is a more nefarious reason why it hasn’t been admitted.

No country can become an EU member without unanimous consent. That means that, to join the EU, a candidate country must meet the approval of every single existing member. One “no” vote, and that country does not get in. It is quite probable that at least one country in the EU privately opposes Turkish membership, most likely Greece or Bulgaria, which were ruled for centuries by the Turks, and still harbor some hostility toward them. Given the lingering animosity between Croats and Serbs, Serbia has every reason to be nervous about the same outcome now that Croatia is a member.


The Future of the European Union

For years, the Common Market and its successor, the European Union, seemed like almost flawless ideas. The economies of member states were surging. The core values of the EU – political unification, free trade, open borders, and equal rights – seemed to be accepted by most voters in Europe. Then, in 2004, the constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters. In 2008, an economic crisis in Greece demonstrated some of the EU’s economic flaws.

Today, the EU is facing crises in almost every corner of the union. Russia has ramped up efforts to shatter the EU through political and economic gamesmanship. In southern Europe, economies are stagnating, and many countries have required economic bailouts from the EU. In eastern Europe, democratic institutions are eroding – Hungary’s to the point that some argue it no longer qualifies as a democracy. In northern and northwestern Europe, a backlash against immigration has given rise to political parties that oppose the EU. Even supporters of the EU have acknowledged that the union may have been too ambitious, and gotten too big too fast.

Of course, the greatest blow to the EU has been Brexit – the exit of Britain, the EU’s second-largest economy, from the union. The Brexit process began back in 2016, when the country held a referendum on the country’s future in the EU. Voters has two choices – they could select “Remain” or “Leave.” It was a political gamble by then-Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron wanted Britain to remain in the EU, but the chorus of euro-skeptics had grown so loud that he decided to let the British voters voice their opinion (feeling fairly confident that they would elect to “Remain”).

Those who supported the “Leave” campaign argued that the EU was crumbling economically, while the British economy was thriving. They argued that Britain should redirect its political and economic alliances away from Europe and toward the United States. They railed against EU bureaucracy as bloated and ineffective. They argued that the EU Parliament and European Court were undermining British sovereignty. And, most effectively, the “Leave” campaign said that EU membership left Britain unable to control immigration.

In a shocking result, British voters narrowly supported “Leave” over “Remain,” by a 52% to 48% margin. It was a non-binding referendum, and a political circus ensued over what Britain should actually do. In the end, though, the British government respected the decision of the voters, and Britain formerly exited the EU on January 31, 2020. It has until the end of 2020 to negotiate what its future relationship with the EU will be.

Time will tell what those negotiations bear out. Britain would very much like to retain all of the economic benefits of membership, such as remaining in a free-trade zone with the EU, without any of the financial or political responsibilities of being a member. It is unlikely that the EU will be so generous. Many British business owners and politicians are deeply fearful for Britain’s economic future. If it cannot hammer out a trade deal with the EU, then the prices of products imported to Britain from EU countries will increase dramatically. At the same time, and for the same reasons, demand for British products in Europe could collapse, creating an economic catastrophe for Britain. Still, Britain’s economy could thrive. If it does, then it might inspire other countries to exit the EU. If Britain falls on its face, economically speaking, it could reinforce for EU members the importance of remaining part of the union.


Economic Geography


Europe enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living. Of the region’s thirty-seven major countries, thirty-one have overall standards of living that are well above the global average. Six countries – Montenegro, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Albania – have more modest overall standards of living, but even those countries are wealthy by global standards.


A Post-Industrial Economy

Like the United States, Europe is evolving into a post-industrial society. Agriculture and manufacturing are still important to the European economy, but those industries are employing fewer people than in generations past. Of the world’s ten leading agricultural exporters, six of them (Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy) are located in Europe. Agriculture in Europe, however, is highly mechanized, so it employs a relatively small percentage of the workforce.

Europe is also a major manufacturing region. Germany, Britain, France, and Italy all rank in the top ten globally in manufacturing output. European manufacturing tends to be high-tech, such as electronics, automobiles, computer hardware, robotics, telecommunications, aerospace, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. These sorts of industries are highly lucrative, but not terribly labor-intensive. As a result, a dwindling percentage of Europeans work in manufacturing.

Also like the United States, more and more European jobs are found in the tertiary (service) and quaternary (information) sectors, such as transportation, health care, banking, sales, advertising, legal services, consulting, research, media, education, tourism, and social services. As in the United States, the new economy has created a large number of high-paying white-collar jobs, but it has also decimated a lot of well-playing blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and agriculture. As a result, the middle class is declining as the wealthier and poorer classes grow.


The Economy of the European Union

The primary economic goal of the European Union remains the same as that of the old Common Market when it was founded back in the 1950s: economic integration. In other words, the EU is trying to take twenty-seven individual national economies and integrate them into one large economic market. Once again, it is helpful to consider the United States. The U.S. may have fifty individual state governments, but generally speaking, there are very few mechanisms that prevent the movement of goods, people, and money across state borders. The EU’s ambition is to have a similarly integrated market.

One of the great economic liabilities of many European countries is a relatively small population. Of the twenty-seven member states of the EU, twelve have populations that are smaller than that of the Chicago metropolitan area. Ireland, for example, has about half as many people as Chicagoland. The combined populations of Europe’s five largest countries – Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain – is still smaller than that of the United States.

For European countries, that means a small domestic market. Consider Sweden, which is home to about 10 million people. Sweden has long been a major manufacturer, but its small population is a liability. There is simply no way that major Swedish manufacturers can survive only selling their products to the 10 million people who live in Sweden. So, Sweden relies on the export market – especially in Europe. The problem was that, prior to Sweden’s joining the EU, as soon as Swedish products were exported to another country, the exporter had to pay a tariff (an import tax) to that country’s government. That made Swedish manufactured goods more expensive, which meant fewer of them sold. This was the primary reason why Sweden joined the EU.

The EU’s market is massive. Its economy is worth $19 trillion annually (second only to the United States), and it has a population of nearly 450 million people (behind only China and India). By joining the EU, Sweden could avoid tariffs when exporting products to other EU countries. When Sweden finally joined in 1995, its home market was suddenly forty-five times larger.

That’s why many countries were eager to join the EU. Membership in the EU meant that a country’s banks could now loan money to a larger pool of people. Businesses could sell to a much larger market. Consumers had a much wider range of options to choose from, which usually meant products of higher quality and lower cost. And the EU encouraged Europeans to buy products from other European companies (rather than, say, Japanese or American ones), so European wealth stayed in the European market.

Another appealing thing about EU membership is a common currency. Before 1999, every EU country used its own national currency. France had the franc, Germany had the mark, Italy had the lira, and so on. In 1999, the euro became the official currency of eleven EU countries. Any country that had joined the EU after 1993 was required to adopt the euro once they hit certain monetary benchmarks. (Those that joined before 1993 were allowed to opt out – only Britain and Denmark chose to do so). Today, nineteen countries have adopted the euro. Another seven members are expected to adopt it eventually.

Using multiple currencies in a single market is impractical, and tends to reduce trade volume. By adopting a uniform currency, trade within Europe was not only more practical, but it began to increase. Having a larger pool of currency also tends to reduce interest rates and inflation rates, both of which are economically beneficial. And, by adopting the euro, the European Union created a rival for the U.S. dollar, which had dominated global currency markets for decades. That had given the U.S. enormous leverage over the global economy, a benefit the EU now enjoys as well.

Finally, the EU attracted new members because of its willingness to invest in economic development throughout the region. The EU funds infrastructure and economic development programs in Europe’s poorer regions, investing in transportation, communication, utilities, technology, schools, and banks.


The EU’s Reality Check

Even after the constitution failed in 2005 and the political future of the EU became unsettled, the economic future of the EU still looked bright. Then, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, the EU began to face serious economic problems. In 2009, Greece announced that it was in danger of defaulting on its loans. For years, the Greek government had been borrowing heavily, ostensibly for economic development programs. In reality, Greece was plugging holes in its budget. Greece had kept taxes low, and had a serious problem with tax evasion, yet it had increased spending. At first, this was not a serious problem because, like much of the rest of the EU, the Greek economy was booming. Then, when the global financial crisis hit, Greece’s economy collapsed, and the Greek government found that it couldn’t make its loan payments.

Had the EU allowed Greece to default on its loans, it likely would have destabilized the euro, caused massive bank failures, driven up interest rates, and made an already gloomy European economic situation even worse. So, the EU agreed to provide Greece with a bailout to keep it from defaulting. In exchange, the Greek government agreed to enact drastic spending cuts and tax increases – a move which punished working class Greeks far more than it punished the politicians and business owners who had caused the crisis.

As you can imagine, the bailout was not terribly popular in the countries that provided most of the funds for the bailout, like Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden. And, to the horror of the taxpayers in those countries, they soon learned that Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain were in a situation similar to Greece, and would eventually require bailouts themselves.

This was the EU’s “reality check.” Despite the high degree of economic unification that had come with the EU, the individual governments within the union were still able to borrow and budget as they wished. It was clear that, for the EU to avoid another round of bailouts, it would need to enact stricter rules for member countries. But that is something few countries have been willing to embrace, since it represents an erosion of their sovereignty.


Did You Know?

Prior to the evolution of the nation-state, most European countries were ruled by a monarch, and many European monarchs were related to one another, and often ruled countries where they weren’t born. One is example is Catherine the Great. Catherine is now remembered as Empress of Russia, and one of the most successful and longest-tenured rulers of that country. But Catherine wasn’t actually Russian. She was a German princess who married into the Russian royal family (and then orchestrated her husband’s overthrow). Her cousin was the King of Sweden. Catherine’s direct descendants include Prince Charles, the current heir to the British throne; Queen Margrethe II, the current queen of Denmark; King Willem-Alexander, the current king of the Netherlands; and King Felipe VI, the current king of Spain.


Cited and additional bibliography:

Corniquet, Wendy. 2015. Caravan. https://pixabay.com/photos/caravan-gypsy-hair-travel-bohemia-1147978/.

Cowgill, Warren. n.d. Indo-European Languages. Accessed November 15, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Indo-European-languages.

Freeth, Mark. 2014. Edge of Space. https://tinyurl.com/rockgibby. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Vallejo, Iris. n.d. Pyrenees Mountains. Image by Iris Vallejo from Pixabay. Accessed July 17, 2020.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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