Despite its apparent compactness, Europe is a continent of immense diversity. Geographically, its northern fringes jut into the Arctic Ocean, its western and southern edges run into the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas, and its vast eastern plains extend to the Ural Mountains and beyond—into Asia. Geologically, the Atlantic opening and associated tectonic movements are a constant presence in the region, with Iceland the most striking example of volcanic and seismic activity. In addition to these natural characteristics, European climatic contrasts are extreme, ranging from the temperate climate of Britain and Germany to the hotter conditions found in Spain, southern France, and Greece.

In terms of human history, the concept of Europe has been shaped by war, religious strife, political intrigue, and intellectual debate. Although modern science is now able to draw with some precision the geologic lineaments that define Europe, there remains considerable uncertainty over what constitutes the cultural and social definition of this area.

The ancient Greeks saw the name “Europa” as a sort of geographic metaphor, connoting a civilized and cultured land in contrast to despotic Asia and Libya (the ancient names for the northern parts of Africa). Since that time, European ideas of unity have recurred periodically—in the 17th century, as an attempt to unite Christianity against Islam; in the 19th century, with the enlargement of the EU to include former Soviet republics; and today, when the EU is being pressed by Washington to let Turkey in as well.

For some, the European idea has come to be synonymous with prosperity and democratic freedom. Others, however, look at the current state of European politics and economics with scepticism. The EU, for example, is not a model of democracy that the rest of the world would be eager to emulate—witness the way that many European countries have descended into corruption and the way that the Union has been beset by internal divisions.

Nevertheless, many peoples around the globe do associate “Europe” with these positive qualities, and they hope to follow the path of peace and prosperity that the EU appears to have trodden so successfully. The geographic and historical enlargement of the EU is a sign of this.

There are 44 countries considered to be part of the European continent. See the articles on individual countries for further discussion.

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