- This article is about the continent. For alternative meanings, see: Europe (disambiguation)
Europe is geologically and geographically a peninsula, forming the westernmost part of Eurasia. It is conventionally considered a continent, which, in this case, is more of a cultural distinction than a geographic one. (National Geographic, however, officially recognises it as a separate continent.) It is bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, and to the east by the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea (for more detailed description see Geography of Europe).
When considered a continent, Europe is the world's second smallest continent in terms of area, with an area of 10,600,000 kmē (4,140,625 square miles), making it larger than Australia only. In terms of population it is the third largest continent after Asia and Africa. The population of Europe in 2003 was estimated to be 799,466,000: roughly one eighth of the world's population.
In Greek mythology, Europa was a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in bull form and taken to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to Minos. For Homer, Europa (Greek: Ευρώπη) was a mythological queen of Crete, not a geographical designation. Later Europa stood for mainland Greece and by 500 BC its meaning was extended to lands to the north.
The term Europe is generally derived from Greek words meaning broad (eurys) and face (ops). A minority, however, see a Semitic origin, pointing to the Semitic word gharoob which means "sunset". From a Middle Eastern viewpoint, the sun sets over Europe: the lands to the west.
Main article: History of Europe
Europe has a long history of cultural and economic achievement, starting as far back as the Palaeolithic. The origins of Western democratic and individualistic culture are often attributed to Ancient Greece. The Roman Empire divided the continent along the Rhine and Danube for several centuries. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a long period of stasis, known as the "Dark Ages" to Renaissance thinkers and as the "Middle Ages" to Enlightenment and modern historians. During this time, isolated monastic communities in Ireland and elsewhere carefully safeguarded and compiled knowledge accumulated previously. The Renaissance and the New Monarchs marked the start of a period of discovery, exploration, and increase in scientific knowledge. In the 15th century Portugal opened the age of discoveries, soon followed by Spain. They were later joined by France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in building large colonial empires with vast holdings in Africa, the Americas, and Asia.
After the age of discovery, the ideas of democracy took hold in Europe. Struggles for independence arose, most notably in France during the period known as the French Revolution. This led to vast upheaval in Europe as these revolutionary ideas propagated across the continent. The rise of democracy led to increased tensions within Europe on top of the tensions already existing due to competition within the New World. The most famous of these conflicts was when Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and set out on a conquest, forming a new French empire that soon collapsed. After these conquests Europe stabilised, but the old foundations were already beginning to crumble.
The Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain in the late 18th century, leading to much greater general prosperity and a corresponding increase in population. Many of the states in Europe took their present form in the aftermath of World War I. From the end of World War II through the end of the Cold War, Europe was divided into two major political and economic blocks: Communist nations in Eastern Europe and capitalist countries in Western Europe. Around 1990, the Eastern bloc broke up.
Geography and extent
Political and geographic boundaries in Europe do not always match. This physical and political map shows Europe at its furthest extent, reaching to the Urals.
For further information see the article Geography of Europe.
Geographically Europe is a part of the larger landmass known as Eurasia. The continent begins at the Ural Mountains in Russia, which define Europe's eastern boundary with Asia. The southeast boundary with Asia isn't universally defined. Either the Ural or Emba rivers can serve as possible boundaries. The boundary continues with the Caspian Sea, and either the Kuma and Manych rivers or the Caucasus mountains as possibilities, and onto the Black Sea; the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles conclude the Asian boundary. The Mediterranean Sea to the south separates Europe from Africa. The western boundary is the Atlantic Ocean, but Iceland, much farther away than the nearest points of Africa and Asia, is also included in Europe. There is ongoing debate on where the geographical centre of Europe is.
In practice, the borders of Europe are often drawn with greater regard to political, economic, and other cultural considerations. This has led to there being several different "Europe"s that are not always identical in size, including or excluding countries according to the definition of "Europe" used.
Almost all European countries are members of the Council of Europe, the exceptions being Belarus, the Holy See (Vatican City), and Kazakhstan.
The idea of a European "continent" is not held across all cultures. Some non-European geographical texts refer to a Eurasian Continent, or to a European "sub-continent", given that "Europe" is not surrounded by sea and is, in any case, much more a cultural than a geographically definable area. In the past concepts such as "Christendom" were deemed more important.
In another usage, "Europe" is increasingly being used as a short-form for the European Union (EU) and its members, currently consisting of 25 member states. A number of other European countries are negotiating for membership, and several more are expected to begin negotiations in the future (see enlargement of the European Union).
In terms of shape, Europe is a collection of connected peninsulas. The two largest of these are "mainland" Europe and Scandinavia to the north, divided from each other by the Baltic Sea. Three smaller peninsulas—Iberia, Italy and the Balkans—emerge from the southern margin of the mainland into the Mediterranean Sea, which separates Europe from Africa. Eastward, mainland Europe widens much like the mouth of a funnel, until the boundary with Asia is reached at the Ural Mountains.
Land relief in Europe shows great variation within relatively small areas. The southern regions, however, are more mountainous, while moving north the terrain descends from the high Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathians, through hilly uplands, into broad, low northern plains, which are vast in the east. This extended lowland is known as the Great European Plain, and at its heart lies the North German Plain. An arc of uplands also exists along the northwestern seaboard, beginning in the western British Isles and continuing along the mountainous, fjord-cut spine of Norway.
This description is simplified. Sub-regions such as Iberia and Italy contain their own complex features, as does mainland Europe itself, where the relief contains many plateaus, river valleys and basins that complicate the general trend. Iceland and the British Isles are special cases. The former is a land unto itself in the northern ocean which is counted as part of Europe, while the latter are upland areas that were once joined to the mainland until rising sea levels cut them off.
Due to the few generalisations that can be made about the relief of Europe, it is less than surprising that its many separate regions provided homes for many separate nations throughout history.
Having lived side-by-side with agricultural and industrial civilisations for millennia, Europe's animals and plants have been profoundly affected by the presence and activities of man. With the exception of Scandinavia and northern Russia, few areas of untouched wilderness are today to be found in Europe, except for different natural parks.
The main natural vegetation cover in Europe is forest. The conditions for its growth are very favourable. In the north, Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Stream warm the continent. Southern Europe has Mediterranean climate. There are frequent summer droughts in this region. Mountain ridges also affect the conditions. Some of these (Alps, Pyrenees) are oriented east-west and allow the wind to carry large masses of water from the ocean in the interior. Others are oriented south-north (Scandinavian Mountains, Dinarides, Carpathes , Apennines) and because the rain falls primarily on the side of mountains that is oriented towards sea, forests grow well on this side, while on the other side, the conditions are much less favourable. Few corners of mainland Europe have not been grazed by livestock at some point over the millennia, and the cutting down of the pre-agricultural forest habitat caused incalculable disruption to the original plant and animal ecosystems.
Europe was once covered 80 to 90 per cent by forest. It stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Though over half of Europe's original forests disappeared through the centuries of colonisation, Europe still has over one quarter of the world's forests - spruce forests of Scandinavia, vast pine forests in Russia, chestnut rainforests of the Caucasus and the cork oak forests in the Mediterranean. During recent times, deforestation has been stopped and many trees were planted. However, in many cases conifers have been preferred over original deciduous trees, because these grow quicker. The plantations and monocultures now cover vast areas of land and this offers very poor habitats for European forest dwelling species. The amount of original forests in Western Europe is just two to three per cent (in the European part of Russia five to ten per cent). The country with the smallest forest-covered area is Ireland (eight per cent), while the most forested country is Finland (72 per cent).
In "mainland" Europe, deciduous forest prevails. The most important species are beech, white beech and oak. In the North, where taiga grows, a very common tree species is the birch tree. In the Mediterranean, many olive trees have been planted, which are very well adapted to its arid climate. Another common species in Southern Europe is the cypress. Coniferous forests prevail at higher altitudes up to the forest boundary and as one moves north within Russia and Scandinavia, giving way to tundra as the Arctic is approached. The semi-arid Mediterranean region hosts much scrub forest. A narrow east-west tongue of Eurasian grassland—the steppe—extends eastwards from Ukraine and southern Russia and ends in Hungary and traverses into taiga to the north.
Glaciation during the most recent ice age and the presence of man affected the distribution of European fauna. As for the animals, in many parts of Europe most large animals and top predator species have been hunted to extinction. The woolly mammoth and aurochs were extinct before the end of the Neolithic period. Today wolves (carnivores) and bears (omnivores) are endangered. Once they were found in most parts of Europe. However, deforestation caused these magnificent animals to withdraw further and further. Already in the Middle Ages the bears' habitats were limited to more or less inaccessible mountains with sufficient forest cover. Today, the brown bear lives primarily in the Balkan peninsula, in the North and in Russia; a small number also persist in other countries across Europe (Austria, Pyrenees etc.), but in these areas brown bear populations are fragmented and marginalised because of the destruction of their habitat. In the far North of Europe, polar bears can also be found. The wolf, the second largest predator in Europe after the brown bear, can be found primarily in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans.
Other important European carnivores are Eurasian lynx, European wild cat, foxes (especially the red fox), jackal and different species of martens, hedgehogs, different species of snakes (vipers, grass snake...), different birds (owls, hawks and other birds of prey)
Important European herbivores are snails, amphibians, fish, different birds, and mammals, like rodents, deers and roe deers, boars, and living in the mountains, marmots, steinbocks, chamoises among others.
Sea creatures are also an important part of European flora and fauna. The sea flora is mainly phytoplankton. Important animals that live in European seas are zooplankton, molluscs, echinoderms, different crayfish, squids and octopuses, fish, dolphins, and whales.
Some animals live in caves, for example proteus and bats.
Europe comprises the following independent states (in alphabetical order):
1 Armenia and Cyprus are geographically in Asia, but considered part of Europe for cultural and historical reasons.
2 Azerbaijan and Georgia lie partly in Europe according to definitions which consider the main watershed of the Caucasus as the boundary with Asia.
3 Kazakhstan's European territory consists of a portion west of the Ural River (the Emba in other definitions).
4 The name of this state is a matter of international dispute. See Republic of Macedonia for details.
5 Those territories of Russia lying west of the Ural Mountains and north of the main Caucasus watershed are considered as part of Europe.
6 European Turkey comprises territory to the west and north of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits.
2, 3, 5, 6 See Countries in both Europe and Asia for details.
The European territories listed below are recognised as being culturally and geographically defined. Most have a degree of autonomy. In the list below, each territory is followed by the name of the state, which administers it.
Note that this is not a list of all dependencies of all European countries. Dependencies located on other continents are not listed.
Regions in Europe
Main article: Regions of Europe
Sub-divisions of Europe are highly arbitrary, as little consensus exists on the various definitions that are proposed. No strict geographical conventions exist; the map below represents, however, the most widespread idea of what countries constitute the various regions of the continent. Often the various regions include different countries than those on the map.
Western Europe (red)
Main article: Western Europe
Western Europe is always assumed to include: Great Britain, Ireland, France and the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). It usually also includes Germany, though geographically the country may be more central European. In some circumstances, it refers to the entire western half of Europe, including the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, Andorra), the Italian peninsula (Italy, San Marino, Vatican City), the Nordic Countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark) and the Alpine Countries (Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia) and Monaco. Used in a historical or political sense (referring to Cold War divisions), this term may even include Greece and Turkey.
Central Europe (light blue)
Main article: Central Europe
Central Europe is not perhaps as common a term as Western or Eastern Europe. Most of the countries included in the definition are often labelled Western or Eastern. A definition of Central Europe usually includes the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) and often also the Alpine Countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia, Germany).
Eastern Europe (orange)
Main article: Eastern Europe
Similarly to Western Europe, the term Eastern Europe may be used in a strict or broad sense. It includes the European CIS States (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine), and not seldom the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Poland. It often includes the Caucasus or Transcaucasian countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), though these are often also regarded as part of Asia. In a broader economic/political context, it may also encompass all of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) and the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro). During the Cold War, the Eastern bloc Communist states (which belonged to the Warsaw Pact) were referred to as "Eastern Europe". Often the term included the non Soviet-bloc countries of Albania and the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.
Northern Europe (purple)
Main article: Northern Europe
On the map, "Northern Europe" is depicted as only encompassing the Nordic Countries (i.e. "Scandinavia" in the widest sense: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark). Some also count Estonia as a Nordic country due to its strong cultural ties with Finland. The term Northern Europe does, however, usually cover a much larger area, in fact an arbitrary part of Europe north of the Alps. Typically, it includes the British Isles (Great Britain and Ireland), the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), Northern France, Germany, often all the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), sometimes Poland, and on occasion even Russia.
Southern Europe (green)
Main article: Southern Europe
Southern Europe is a term used in much the same ways as Northern Europe. It includes the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, and Andorra), the Italian Peninsula (Italy, San Marino, Vatican City), Monaco and the Balkan Peninsula (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro). Usually the remaining Mediterranean States (Cyprus, Malta) and Eastern Thrace (in Turkey) are also included. In a cultural sense, southern France (including Corsica) may be included.
Asia (light/dark pink)
Some states have territory lying in both Europe and Asia (Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia). Their Asian territory is coloured light pink. Some states that lie entirely on the Asian continent are considered part of Europe because of cultural and historical reasons (Armenia, Cyprus). They are coloured dark-pink. Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhchivan is also coloured dark-pink because it is not a continuous extension of Azerbaijan's territory.
Lists and tables