The word “Europe” evokes in most people’s minds a sense of unity, a community shared around ideals such as tolerance and intellectual freedom. It is perhaps no coincidence that European nations have also produced remarkable economic success, as well as outstanding artistic and scientific achievements. These successes have attracted people from other parts of the world to Europe, whether to work and live or to seek a better life.
Europe’s size and history have given it a unique place in global affairs. Its 46 countries are home to nearly a fifth of the world’s population. The continent’s natural resources include abundant fertile soil, a variety of climates and landscapes, and an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals. Its rich cultural heritage includes a broad range of languages and traditions. Its political institutions have evolved to promote cooperation among formerly competing nations. And its social and economic development has been a model for many other places around the globe.
This article will explore what it is, exactly, that is so special about Europe. It will examine the geography of the continent, the cultures that have flourished within it, and the peoples who call it home. It will examine how Europe has forged its own identity, and how that identity has evolved over time. And it will consider what kind of future lies ahead for the European project.
Defining Europe is not an easy task. Its etymology is obscure, and its boundaries are in dispute. Some scholars argue that it extends from the Arctic Circle to the Urals; others, including de Gaulle, envisioned a union stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea (the latter being referred to by the Romans as mare nostrum – “our sea”).
In terms of geographic features, Europe contains many mountain ranges and broad river basins. It also has extensive areas of glacial drift, and its coastline is dotted with islands. The Alps are the largest mountain range in Europe, while the Baltic Shield is the thickest layer of older rocks on the continent. Other areas of Europe contain coal deposits, uranium minerals, and other heavy metals.
For centuries, Europe’s political fragmentation encouraged productive competition. Although it cost much in incessant warfare and other costs, the existence of multiple competing states spurred innovation and accelerated technological change. It enabled Galileo’s censored books to be smuggled out of Italy and published in Protestant cities, and for Spinoza’s Tractatus to be printed in Amsterdam even though it was banned in his native city, Strasbourg. Moreover, the fact that European rulers competed to attract the best and most productive artisans and scholars enhanced intellectual freedom in ways that would not have been possible in a centralized state. This was one of the factors that allowed the modern European economy to achieve such spectacular growth. In the future, European cooperation could play a similar role in helping developing countries to reach their full potential. However, the current European project faces a number of challenges that may undermine its aims and prospects.