Europe Facts

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Europe Facts

Europe is a continent of peninsulas, islands, and varied landforms. The traditional boundaries of the European continent include the North Atlantic Ocean to the west and Russia up to the Ural Mountains to the east. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia has been given its own identification and, in this text, is not included in the study of Europe. Russia will be discussed in Chapter 3. Greenland is located next to the North American country of Canada but has traditionally been considered a part of Europe because of Denmark’s colonial acquisition of the island. Greenland is physically more a part of North America. The Arctic Ocean creates a natural boundary to the north. The southern boundary of Europe is the Mediterranean Sea and includes the islands of Malta and Cyprus as independent countries. A portion of Turkey is in Europe, but Turkey is considered a part of Asia Minor and is usually included in the study of the Middle East region. The waterway in Turkey between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea is the Bosporus, or the Istanbul Strait, which creates a natural border between Asia and Europe. Europe is also close to North Africa, and Morocco’s coast can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.


From the Roman Empire to the European Union (EU), Europe’s historical pattern of development is a model study in regional geography. From historic empires to diverse nation-states to a multicountry union, the continent struggles to confront the cultural forces that unite and divide it. The powerful impact European colonialism has had on the world since the Industrial Revolution is still felt today. The rural-to-urban shift prompted by the Industrial Revolution first impacted Europe and continues to impact developing countries. Understanding the geographic region of Europe is essential to understanding our world. This short summary of the basic concepts will provide a valuable lesson in globalization, which affects every human being on the planet. The concepts and principles that apply to Europe can also apply to other countries and regions.

Europe is a northern continent. All the British Isles, for example, fall above the fiftieth parallel. If we compare Europe’s position on a globe with that of the contiguous United States, we see that much of Europe lies north of the United States. Paris, France, is at about the same latitude as Fargo, North Dakota. Athens, Greece, is at about the same latitude as St. Louis, Missouri. Europe’s northern position affects its growing seasons and people’s moods, and it should be taken into consideration as an important influence in the evolution of the European character. Europe is also surrounded by bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean borders Europe on the west, the Arctic Ocean borders Europe to the north, and many seas surround the various peninsulas and coastal regions.

The oceans exert significant influence on the world’s climates. The oceans collect and store vast amounts of solar energy, particularly around the equator, and transport that heat with their currents. Ocean currents can move water for thousands of miles from one temperature zone to another. Because oceans can absorb so much heat, maritime climates are often milder than continental ones, with smaller temperature variations from day to night as well as from winter to summer. This influences not only temperature but also precipitation patterns over wide regions of Europe and the rest of the world. Water moderates coast environments in a number of ways. Water heats and cools more slowly than land. This heat inertia allows coastal communities to have climates that tend to be more moderate than one might imagine for places so far north. Interior Europe does not benefit from coastal waters and can have winters as cold as those found within the upper midwestern United States.


Europe has four main landforms, many islands and peninsulas, and various climate types. The four main landforms include the Alpine regionCentral UplandsNorthern Lowlands, and Western Highlands. Each represents a different physical part of Europe. The wide-ranging physical environment has provided Europe with an abundance of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to diversity of the number of species in an ecosystem and the quantity of members in each species. The physical environment also provides natural resources and raw materials for human activities. Europe’s moderate climates and favorable relative location are supported by its access to the many rivers and seas. These advantageous developmental factors supported the development of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which gave rise to highly technical and urban societies. Europe has emerged as one of the core economic centers of the global economy. Associated with the urbanization of Europe are high human population densities that have placed a strain on the natural environment. As result, there has been significant deforestation and the loss of natural habitat, which has in turn has decreased the realm’s level of biodiversity.

Rivers are abundant in Europe and have provided adequate transportation for travel and trade throughout its history. Most of Europe is accessible by water transport either via the many rivers or along the extensive coastlines of the peninsulas and islands. Two main rivers divide Europe: the Danube and the Rhine. Both have their origins in the region of southern Germany on or near the border with Switzerland. The Rhine River flows north and empties into the North Sea in Rotterdam, Holland, one of the world’s busiest ports. The Danube flows east through various major European cities, such as Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade before emptying into the Black Sea.

Alps Region

The High Alps, which range from eastern France to Slovenia, are central to the Alpine region. Included in the Alpine Range are the Pyrenees, located on the border between France and Spain; the Apennines, running the length of Italy; the Carpathians, looping around Romania from Slovakia; and finally, the shorter Dinaric Alps in former Yugoslavia. Mountains usually provide minerals and ores that were placed there when the earth’s internal processes created the mountains. Mountains also isolate people by acting as a dividing range that can separate people into cultural groups.

The physical landforms of Europe provide a diversity of geographic opportunities that have catapulted Europe through the Industrial Revolution and into the information age. With an abundance of natural resources, European countries have gained wealth from the land and leveraged their geographic location to develop a powerhouse of economic activity for the global marketplace. Europe has placed a strong focus on manufacturing activity to take advantage of its natural resources. The highly urbanized society has struggled to find a balance between modernization and environmental concerns. Industrial activities have contributed to the degradation of the environment and the demise of a number of species.

Different regions of Europe are blessed with fresh water supplies, good soils, and various minerals. Chief among the mineral deposits in Europe is iron ore, which can be found in Sweden, France, and Ukraine. Other minerals exist in smaller quantities, including copper, lead, bauxite, manganese, nickel, gold, silver, potash, clay, gypsum, dolomite, and salt. Extraction activities have supported the continent’s industrialization.

Europe didn’t become a center for world economics with high standards of living by accident. Historical events in global development have favored this realm because of its physical geography and cultural factors. In southern Europe, the Greeks provided ideas, philosophy, and organization. Greek thinkers promoted the concept of democracy. The Romans carried the concept of empire to new levels. From about 150 BCE to 475 CE, the Romans brought many ideas together and controlled a large portion of Europe and North Africa. The Roman Empire introduced a common infrastructure to Europe. The Romans connected their world by building roads, bridges, aqueducts, and port facilities. They understood how to rule an empire. By taking advantage of the best opportunities of each region they controlled, they encouraged the best and most-skilled artisans to focus on what they did best. This created the specialization of goods and a market economy. No longer did everyone have to make everything for themselves. They could sell in the market what they produced and purchase products made by others, which would be of higher quality than what they could make at home. Regions that specialized in certain goods due to local resources or specialty skills could transport those goods to markets long distances away. The Roman Empire connected southern Europe and North Africa.

The Industrial Revolution

Great Britain, being an island country, developed the world’s largest navy and took control of the seas. Their colonial reach extended from what is now Canada to Australia. The Industrial Revolution,initiated in northern England in the late 1700s, introduced an industrial period that changed how humans produced products. The shift to coal for energy, the use of the steam engine for power, the smelting of iron, and the concept of mass production changed how goods were produced.

The development of the steam-powered engine provided a mobile power source. Waterwheels powered by steep-flowing rivers or streams were an early source of power. With coal for fuel and steam for power, the engines of industry were mobile and moved full speed ahead. Power looms converted textiles such as cotton and wool into cloth. Powered by a steam engine, a power loom could operate twenty-four hours a day and could be located anywhere. Industrialization with cheap labor and adequate raw materials brought enormous wealth to the industrial leaders and their home countries.

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As Europe industrialized and progressed through the stages of the index of economic development, certain core regions reached the postindustrial stages earlier than others. Western Europe established a core industrial region with an extended periphery. The postindustrial activity in this core area continues today in four main centers of innovation: (1) Stuttgart in southern Germany, (2) Lyon in southeastern France, (3) Milan in northern Italy, and (4) Barcelona in northeastern Spain. These four industrial centers have been referred to by some as the Four Motors of Europe because they promote business and industry for the European community. The European core region extends as far as Stockholm in the north to Barcelona in the south.

Nation-States and Devolution

The agrarian revolution and the Industrial Revolution were powerful movements that altered human activity in many ways. New innovations in food production and the manufacturing of products transformed Europe, which in turn impacted the rest of the world. Even before the agrarian revolution was under way, other transitions in European political currents were undermining the established empire mentality fueled by warfare and territorial disputes. The political revolutionthat transformed Europe was a result of diverse actions that focused on ending continual warfare for the control of territory and introducing peaceful agreements that recognized sovereignty of territory ruled by representative government structures. Various treaties and revolutions continued to shift the power from dictators and monarchs to the general populace. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and those that followed helped establish a sense of peace and stability for Central Europe, which had been dominated by the Holy Roman Empire and competing powers. The Holy Roman Empire, which was centered on the German states of Cental Europe from 962–1806, should not be confused with the Roman Empire, which was based in Rome and ended centuries earlier. The French Revolution (1789–95) was an example of the political transformation taking place across Europe to establish democratic processes for governance.

The political revolution laid the groundwork for a sense of nationalism that transformed Europe into nation-states. The term nation refers to a homogeneous group of people with a common heritage, language, religion, or political ambition. The term state refers to the government; for example, the United States has a State Department with a secretary of state. When nations and states come together, there is a true nation-state, wherein most citizens share a common heritage and a united government.

Religion and Language in Europe

Europe has historically been considered a Christian realm. The three main branches of Christianity in Europe are Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. Rome has been the geographical base for the Roman Catholic Church since the Roman Empire. Operating on the Romance language, Latin, the Catholic Church has provided southern Europe with a common religion for over 1,500 years.

The Roman Catholic Church split when Constantinople, now called Istanbul, gained preeminence. The Eastern Orthodox Church launched itself as the primary organization in the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and Russia. The reformation of the fourteenth century, led by people such as Martin Luther, brought about the Protestant Reformation and a break with the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant churches have dominated northern Europe to this day.

Unification Efforts in Europe

After World War II ended in Europe, the three small countries of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg realized that together they would be much stronger and recover more quickly from the war than if they remained separate. Belgium had banking and business; the Netherlands had industry, farming, and the world-class port of Rotterdam on the Rhine River; and Luxembourg had agricultural resources. To help recover from World War II, in 1944 the three countries signed an economic pact called the Benelux Agreement (after the first syllables of each country’s name), which provided a successful example of unification and cooperation.

Implemented from 1948 to 1952, US Secretary of State George Marshall’s Marshall Plan helped rebuild war-torn Europe with American aid and business connections. US businesses and corporations benefited from the increased international trade with Europe. But to deter the European nations from going to war again, there needed to be an economic trade policy that encouraged a strong business climate. In 1957, the more prominent countries of France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and Belgium got together and signed the Treaty of Rome, which created the Common Market. This agreement provided the structure necessary to unify Europe under a European Union (EU) in 1992. Despite many problems, since World War II, steady efforts have been made toward European unification. The EU was the structure for a common economic system with an agreed-upon governing body, and it was designed as an economic trading bloc that could compete with the United States and Japan. A mechanism was finally in place for a supportive, unified Europe, but it would be up to the independent countries that joined this union to make it work.

Regions of Western Europe

The traditional regions of Europe are not as relevant today as they have been historically with the creation of the European Union (EU). Economic and political relationships are more integrated than they were in past eras when nation-states and empires were more significant. Economic conditions have often superseded cultural factors and have intensified the need for increased integration. Cultural forces have traditionally supported nationalistic movements that work to preserve the culture, heritage, and traditions of a people. Regional cultural differences remain the social fabric of local communities that support the retention of their identity. Modern transportation and communication technology has brought this cornucopia of European identities into one single sphere of global recognition.

Northern Europe

Europe has many different cultural identities within its continent. Northern Europe has traditionally included Iceland, Finland, and the three Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. These countries are often referred to as the Nordic countries. All these countries were influenced by Viking heritage and expansion. Their capital cities are also major ports, and the largest cities of each country are their primate cities. The languages of the three Scandinavian countries are from the Germanic language group and are mutually intelligible. Finnish is not an Indo-European language but is instead from the Uralic language family. Most of Iceland’s inhabitants are descendents of Scandinavian Vikings. Protestant Christianity has prevailed in northern Europe since about 1000 CE. The Lutheran Church has traditionally been the state church until recent years. These countries were kingdoms, and their royal families remain highly regarded members of society. The colder northern climate has helped shape the cultural activities and the winter sports that are part of the region’s heritage. Peripheral isolation from the rest of Europe because of their northern location and dividing bodies of water have allowed the northern culture to be preserved for centuries and shape the societies that now exist in northern Europe.

Southern Europe

Southern Europe includes three large peninsulas that extend into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Iberian Peninsula consists of Spain and Portugal. The Pyrenees mountain range separates the Iberian Peninsula from France. Greece, the most southern country on the Balkan Peninsula, includes hundreds of surrounding islands and the large island of Crete. The Italian Peninsula is the shape of a boot with the Apennine Mountains running down its center. Italy also includes the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Technically, the island country of Cyprus is also included in southern Europe. There are five ministates in this region. The small island of Malta is located to the south of Sicily and is an independent country. Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, and Vatican City are also independent states located within the region. Southern Europe’s type C climate, moderated by the water that surrounds it, is often referred to as a Mediterranean climate, which has mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.

Central Europe


Central Europe is a powerhouse of global economics. The Rhine River is a pathway for industrial activity from southern Germany to Europe’s busiest port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Western France has the political capital of the EU along the Rhine at Strasbourg. To the south is France’s second-largest city, Lyon, which is a major industrial center for modern technology. Germany had the historical Ruhr industrial complex along the Rhine that supported the high-tech industries in southern Germany in the cities of Stuttgart, Mannheim, and Munich. Germany is the most populous country in Europe, with over eighty-two million people in 2010. Germany is also Europe’s largest economy and has the largest GDP overall as a country. Belgium has major business centers in Brussels and Antwerp. Switzerland is noted for its banking and financial markets. Luxembourg has one of the highest GDP per capita in all of Europe. Austria is noted for its high level of cultural activities in Vienna and Salzburg. All these countries complement each other in creating one of the dominant economic core areas in the world.

The Benelux Countries

The Benelux countries have a great deal in common historically. Before the economic union that created the term Benelux, these countries were collectively referred to as the Low Countries, so called because of their relative position to sea level. The Benelux countries are some of the most densely populated countries. They have managed to work together toward a common economic objective in spite of their cultural differences.

The capital and largest city in Belgium is Brussels, with the other urban areas being the ports of Antwerp and Ghent. Belgium is split into three large geographic areas. The dominant language in the northern region of Flanders is Dutch (Flemish), and the people are known as Flemings. In the southern region of Wallonia, most people speak French and are known as Walloons. German is the third official language and is spoken along the eastern border.

Transitions of Eastern Europe after the Cold War

After World War II ended in 1945, Europe was divided into Western Europe and Eastern Europe by the Iron Curtain. Eastern Europe fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, and the region was separated from the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the Soviet Republics bordering Eastern Europe declared independence from Russia and united with the rest of Europe. The transition Eastern Europe has experienced in the last few decades has not been easy; however, most of the countries are now looking to Western Europe for trade and economic development. Cooperation continues between Eastern and Western Europe, and the European Union (EU) has emerged as the primary economic and political entity of Europe.

The collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union led to upheaval and transition in the region of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Each country in the region was under Communist rule. The countries bordering Russia were once part of the Soviet Union, and those countries not part of the Soviet Union were heavily influenced by its dominant position in the region. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the bordering countries declared independence and began the process of integration into the European community. 

The Breakup of Former Yugoslavia

Tito died in 1980. The unity that had helped hold the country together began to break down in the early 1990s with the Soviet Union’s collapse. With the dual loss of the Soviet Union and Tito’s strong policies as centripetal forces, the power struggle for dominance among the various ethnic groups began.

In 1991, Slobodan Miloševik began pushing for the nationalistic goal of uniting all the ethnic Serbs that lived in the various parts of Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia. The efforts were not approved or supported by the UN, which rejected Yugoslavia for membership in 1992. At that time, Kosovo and Montenegro were part of the Serb state. Miloševik first sent the Yugoslav military to Kosovo to take control from the majority Albanian population and secure the region for Greater Serbia. Fearing war, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence in 1991. Yugoslavia was breaking up.


  • The European continent extends from the North Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains in Russia. The Russian segment of the European continent is usually studied with Russia as a whole. Europe is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south.
  • The Gulf Stream helps create a type C climate for much of Western Europe. Type D climates dominate the north and eastern portions of Eastern Europe. Europe has four main physical landforms that provide a diversity of resources for human activity.
  • European colonialism brought increased wealth and economic activity to Western Europe. The Industrial Revolution also began here. Europe developed into an industrialized realm with powerful economic forces that continue to drive the postindustrial engine of globalization. Rural-to-urban shift and urbanization were products of industrialization. The result for Europe has been smaller families and higher incomes.
  • The Roman Empire created early networks of infrastructure for southern Europe, while the Vikings connected northern Europe through trade and warfare. The latest attempt to unify the European nations is through supranationalism in the formation of the European Union (EU). Countries that have strong economies and stable governments are allowed to join the EU.
  • Western Europe can be divided into various geographic regions based on the points of the compass. The distinctions often relate to the type of economic activity the people are engaged in or are based on cultural traits such as the variations of Christianity or the branches of the Indo-European language.
  • Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Eastern Europe has been transitioning from Communist governments to democratic governments with capitalist-style economies. Some countries have made this transition more easily than others. Many of the more progressive countries have been accepted into the EU. Other countries continue to struggle to establish stable democratic governments and a growing economy.
  • The breakup of former Yugoslavia is an excellent example of how cultural forces shape geographic areas. The Slavic region that makes up former Yugoslavia was separated through nationalism and strong devolutionary forces. The largest state of Serbia dominated the breakup with the push for a Greater Serbia for Serbs only. The result was the creation of seven smaller states following a nation-state design.

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