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This question is deceivingly simple. “Europe” can be defined in a number of ways, each with different implications for understanding the politics, culture, and history of the region. With each definition we propose, we will also argue why that definition, whether it is based on geography, politic, or culture, is problematic. The better question we might ask ourselves is: why and how have we come to think about Europe the way we do? “Europe,” as we think about it, is as much a product of history and politics as it is a real thing. The reason for this can be found in the European Union’s motto – “united in diversity.” Europe is an incredibly diverse place, no matter how you look at it. Let’s take a look at what Europe “is”:

Key Points

  • While the European continent stretches from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and Arctic to the Mediterranean, this covers a diverse set of biomes, from grasslands to high mountain ranges.

Europe might seem to be clearly defined if you’ve ever had to label continents on a map. It stretches from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south, and from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Ural Mountains in the east.

While this simple geographic definition is how we will define it throughout this toolkit, using geography as a defining set of criteria quickly becomes problematic. For example, this definition of Europe cuts some countries into two: Turkey has an Asian and a European side, split by the Bosporus, while Russia is split by the Ural Mountains. This definition might exclude Cyprus and Malta, two European Union member states in the Mediterranean Sea. What would we make of the Spanish cities of Melilla and Ceuta, which lie across the Mediterranean Sea from the Spanish mainland and are surrounded entirely by Morocco. On the other hand, we might think of the fact that many European countries have overseas territories, largely the product of colonialism, which span the globe. We could point to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, Falkland or Malvinas Islands in the South Atlantic, or French Polynesia in the Pacific as other examples of European territories around the world.

A map showing the locations of the Spanish exclaves Mellila and Ceuta.
A map showing the locations of the Spanish exclaves Mellila and Ceuta.

Just like the United States has many climates and geographies, so does Europe, such that there is no single European biome. Much of Europe is covered by temperate, deciduous forests, many of which were cleared in order to build cities and agriculture to support those cities. Nevertheless, some of the oldest forests in the world are in Europe, including the Bialowieza Forest that spans parts of Belarus and Poland, which is home to trees over 500 years old that have survived wars and logging. In Scandinavia, temperate forests give way to the sub-Arctic taiga and tundra biomes, while in the far Eastern regions grass and shrublands dominate. There are several major mountain ranges in Europe, most notably the Alps, which rise from the Mediterranean Sea to over peaks over 10,000 feet in a matter of miles. By contrast, Southern Europe is dominated by Mediterranean forests and grasslands with wet and cool winters and hot, dry summers. This geographic diversity also means it is an incredibly biodiverse place.

Key Points

  • Europe is home to many cultures, making it difficult to define any cultural practices as European.
  • Europe’s cultural diversity can be seen in its many museums and historical cities, many of which are or have UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
  • The European Union’s motto is “united in diversity.”

How would we define Europe culturally is equally difficult. Today, our geographically-defined Europe includes 44 countries with over 100 languages spoken, 24 of which are official languages of the European Union. Europeans belong to every religious confession, though there are important regional differences in adherence to Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam, which were often the subject of wars throughout European history. Similarly, categorizing any group of people as European is difficult, not the least because there is no European race, despite historical attempts to create one, which was motivated by a desire to subjugate other people based on debunked science. Most people throughout history did not have a concept of territorial identity based on the continent. Instead, identities were constructed around kin networks and potentially cities and surrounding regions. The idea of a nation itself is a product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when public education systems began to cultivate national identities around certain historical events and practices. Simply put, the sheer diversity of European cultures today makes it difficult to categorize any single set of customs or practices as European.

While we often think of Italian renaissance architecture, the music of Austrian composers, and French cuisine as quintessentially European, these are only a small fraction of things that make up “European” culture. While European cultural legacies are important and noteworthy in their own right, it is worth considering the various influences on Europe over its history. “Europe,” which owes its beginnings to the civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome, were hardly European by today’s standards. Even though present-day Europe inherited the cultural legacies of these civilizations, they covered territory well beyond the contemporary boundaries of Europe. While both controlled the Mediterranean basis, even at its height, the Roman Empires’ northern extent did not include most of present-day Germany, Central Europe, and Scandinavia.

During the Middle Ages, the Islamic World and ancient China were the dominant players of the world system at a time where Europe was an economic and cultural backwater. In other words, Europe between the Roman Empire and Renaissance was an importer of technologies and goods, not an exporter. It was only later – after trade connections became established and the first city-states formed along the ‘city belt’ from London to Tuscany – did Europe begin to emerge as a major producer of culture and hub for trade. Even during the Renaissance, Italian and Spanish thought and culture remained greatly influenced by the of the Islamic World, whose empires throughout history stretched well into the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas.

Today, the European Union seeks to promote the diversity of Europe’s cultures through a series of events and awards. Its own motto is “united in diversity.” Each year, the EU helps foster an appreciation of European culture through prizes like the European Prize for Literature and by designating cities as European Culture Capitals. In 2020, Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland received this designation. You’ll notice these are smaller cities, and is a way for Europe to showcase its gems beyond the major cities. Europe is also home to many UNESCO world heritage sites, all of which are major tourist attractions and architectural or cultural feats of their time. Many European cities have major museums, like the Uffizi in Florence or Louvre in Paris, which host centuries-old artifacts from many cultures. You might consider taking a virtual tour of the Berlin Museum Island or Louvre from the comfort of your home or classroom.

Key Points

  • Politics and wars have shaped what we see as “European” today.
  • The European Union has sought to unite this diverse group of countries and cultures through deeper cooperation, trade, and by harmonizing borders and technologies across countries.

If we think in terms of political boundaries, Europe has multiple and overlapping definitions that have changed over time. The age of massive territorial empires that spanned much of the continent ended with World War I, when the Russian and Austro-Hungarian, and later the Ottoman, empires collapsed. While the Austro-Hungarian empires were centered in Vienna and Budapest, and After World War II and during the Cold War, Europe was divided into two, one half partially controlled by the former Soviet Union and another half, governed by a combination of democratic and capitalist principles, was allied with the United States. This division cut most of eastern Europe off from culturally and economically from the West, and even divided Germany into two countries. Both groups of countries were European, but had very different political, economic, and cultural systems.

Since 1989, the European Union has been instrumental in helping these countries democratize and develop functioning market-based economies, and continues to support these and other poorer regions across Europe develop. Even though the so-called “Iron Curtain” fell more than thirty years ago, the scars of this division are still present today. The cultural and political legacies of Eastern Europe remain, as shown through different political attitudes and cultural norms towards democracy, capitalism, and social issues like LGBT rights. On the other hand, Eastern European countries have in other ways become more like Western Europe. Estonia and Poland have become a hub for new tech industries, while the Czech Republic has become a major tourist destination.

The European Union – the focus of this toolkit – is a supranational (supra = above) organization that binds European countries together through a common set of political and economic institutions, like a parliament and common currency. (We’ll talk more about these things in Sections 3 and 4). The EU itself for many years had no definition of which countries are European, and therefore no restrictions on which countries could theoretically join the EU. In fact, in the 1980s, Morocco (on the African continent) applied for membership to the European Communities (the forerunner to the EU), which later resulted in the EU adopting geographic criteria. And not all countries in Europe are members of the EU – in central Europe, important exceptions include the United Kingdom, which left the EU in 2020, and Norway and Switzerland. There are other layers of international agreements and organizations, like the European Economic Area (trade) and Schengen countries (passport free travel), which do not neatly coincide with geographic Europe or the EU.

“Europe” is an idea that is bound up with how historical narratives have been constructed, and any attempt to define Europe is therefore making a political statement about inclusion or exclusion. When we talk about Europe throughout this toolkit, we mean all the countries on the European continent, but we will often speak about the European Union countries as the focus of this series.

How to teach this section

Discussion Questions

  • How would you define Europe? Does one type of definition (political, geographic, cultural/social) seem more important than the others?
  • How is the European continent geographically different from the North American continent?
  • Why did the Cold War come about, and what was the differences between East and Western European countries?
  • What are the benefits of cooperation between so many different countries? What are some disadvantages?
  • Why do political boundaries change over time?

Suggested Lesson Plans

Elementary School & All Grades
Union Europea: Getting to know the European Union: Students learn geographic concepts and the countries of Europe through an individual map-labeling exercise (Spanish)

Getting to know the European Union through Ancient and Modern Greece: Students explore Europe and its history by comparing ancient and modern Greece (Social Studies)

Exploring EU Cities through Google Earth: Students explore Europe through a Google Earth tour of different European physical landscapes (Geography)

Reimagining the Berlin Wall, including Berlin Wall Page: Students learn about the expression of social justice issues in Europe (Social Studies).

Additional Resources