The continent of Europe occupies the western portion of the Eurasian landmass. It includes many islands and peninsulas, as well as a substantial portion of the Arctic Ocean. It is the second-smallest continent, covering an area of about 50,000 square miles (130,000 km2). The countries of Europe are highly diverse in size, geography, history, culture, and language, but they have a lot to share as well. The European Union is a great example of a cooperative international body that allows its members to thrive economically and culturally while working together toward shared goals.
The idea of a united Europe began to develop in the centuries after ancient Greece and Rome, when Western civilizations began influencing how the world governs its citizens and territories. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many nations of Europe forged strong economic ties that continue today. These relationships have also shaped global ideas about citizenship and the nature of government, which are still being redefined.
In 1947-1948, events in Turkey and Greece led the nations of Western Europe to take a more proactive approach to their physical and political security. As a result, they founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The US joined NATO in 1952 and soon afterwards became more engaged with European affairs. In the early Cold War period, the US sought to reassure its European allies that it would provide military support in the event of Soviet aggression.
It was in this context that the concept of a continental Europe first emerged. The Greeks referred to the land they occupied as Europa, which suggested “land beyond,” or a land that was other than Asia and Libya. The term was later applied to a large Mediterranean-border region inhabited by peoples who were culturally quite distinct from the Greeks.
Early maps of the world frequently showed a T-shaped world consisting of three continents, including a Europe that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, with Jerusalem in the center. Traders and travelers reported that the Europa that lay beyond Greece possessed a variety of geographical units, from coastal plains and low-land river basins to mountain ranges and broad, rugged steppes. Regional climatic contrasts also stood out.
Languages also highlighted the differences between the various regions that became known as Europe. The Romans used Latin to communicate with their subjects throughout the empire, and it subsequently evolved into French in the west and Italian in the south. Today, some languages of Europe remain closely linked to Latin, such as German and Hungarian. Others, like the Romansch dialect spoken by fewer than a million people in Switzerland, are rooted in the medieval Latin tradition but have diverged from it considerably.
With so many nationalities compacted into a small space, it is not surprising that many European countries and regions strongly support their own unique cultural identities. This is evident in the variety of art, literature, music, and architecture that is produced in these areas. These artistic and cultural products help unify the continent, even as they strengthen social, professional, and business ties among its peoples.