Europe is a continent forming the westermost part of the Eurasian supercontinent. Europe 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.
The term Europe is often said to derive from Greek words meaning broad (eurys) and face (ops). Many, however, see a Semitic origin, pointing to the Semitic word ereb 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 great cultural and economic achievement, starting as far back as the palaeolithic. The origin of Western culture is generally attributed to the ancient Greeks, and the Roman Empire spanned the entire continent for many centuries. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a long period of stasis, referred to by enlightenment thinkers as the Dark Ages and by most modern historians, the Middle Ages. During this time isolated monastic communities in Ireland and elsewhere carefully safeguarded and compiled knowledge accumulated previously. The Dark Ages came to an end with the Renaissance and the New Monarchs, marking the start of a period of discovery, exploration, and increase in scientific knowledge. From the 15th century European nations, particularly Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain, built large colonial empires, with vast holdings in Africa, the Americas, and Asia.
The Industrial Revolution started in Europe in the 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. After World War II, and until the end of the Cold War, Europe was divided into two major political and economic blocks: Communist nations in Eastern Europe and capitalistic countries in Western Europe. Around 1990 the Eastern bloc broke up.
Geography and extent
Geographically Europe is a part of the larger landmass known as Eurasia. The continent begins at the Ural Mountains in Russia, which defines Europe's eastern boundary with Asia. The southeast boundary with Asia isn't universally defined, with either the Ural or Emba rivers serving as possible boundaries, continuing 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 "Europes" that are not always identical in size, including or excluding countries according to the definition of "Europe" used.
The idea of a European "continent" is not universally held. 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.
Confusingly, the word "Europe" is increasingly being used as a short-form for the European Union (EU) and its members. 25 European sovereign countries currently belong to the EU. A number of other European countries are negotiating for membership and several more are expected to begin negotiations in the future.
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 peninuslas—Iberia, Italy and Greece—emerge from the southern margin of the mainland into the Medeterranean 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. 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.
The few generalizations that can be made about the relief of Europe make it less than suprising that the continent's many separate regions provided homes for many separate nations throughout history.
Having lived side-by-side with agricultural and industrial civilizations 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 if any areas of untouched wilderness are today to be found in Europe.
The main natural vegetation cover in "mainland" Europe is deciduous forest. Coniferous forests prevail as one moves north within Russia and Scandinavia, giving way to tundra as the Arctic is approached. The semi-arid Medeterranean region hosts much scrub forest and species such as olive trees and grapes which are adapted to the dry climate to which the region gives its name. A narrow east-west belt of grassland begins in Hungary and stretches west across Ukraine and southern Russia — the steppe.
As to the animals, most large animals and top predator species have been hunted to extinction. The wooly mammoth and aurochs were extinct before the end of the Neolithic period, and wolves and bears are today found only in the far north. 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 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.
The territories listed below are recognised as being culturally and geographically defined. Most have a degree of autonomy. In brackets is the state which administers the territory.
¹ According to the Government of Norway, Jan Mayen I. and Svalbard Is. are considered to be parts of the Kingdom of Norway and therefore not to be dependent territories.
Regions in Europe
Map colouring is based on strict geographic definitions. Often the various regions include different countries than those on the map. The inclusion or not of various countries in each region is described below:
Western Europe (Red)
Western Europe is always assumed to include: the British Isles (United Kingdom, Ireland), the French Region (France, Monaco) and Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, 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 or Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark) and the Alpine Countries (Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia). Used in a historical or political sense (referring to Cold War divisions), this term may even include Greece and Turkey.
Central Europe (Blue)
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 and sometimes Germany). According to the most recent usage, Central Europe may even be those countries that joined the European Union on May 1, 2004. This would mean Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (the Visegrad Four), Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia (the Baltic States), Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta.
Eastern Europe (Orange)
Similarly to Western Europe, the term Eastern Europe may be used in a strict or broad sense. It includes the European CIS States (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia), and not seldom the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Poland. It often includes the Caucasus or Transcaucasian countries (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia), 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 (Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia & Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria).
Northern Europe (Purple)
On the map, "Northern Europe" is depicted as only encompassing the Nordic Countries (i.e. "Scandinavia" in the widest sense: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark). 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 (the United Kingdom and Ireland), 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)
Southern Europe is a term used in much the same ways as Northern Europe. It includes the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, Andorra), the Italian peninsula (Italy, Vatican City, San Marino) and the Balkan Peninsula (Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia & Montenegro, Albania, Former Yugoslav Rep. of Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria). Usually the Mediterranean States (Cyprus, Malta) and Asia Minor (i.e. Turkey) are also included. In a cultural sense, southern France may be included.
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