Where Does Europe End?

An idea, not a continent.

Stanley Pignal, the Economist’s Brussels bureau chief and Charlemagne columnist, observes “The definition of Europe has always been both inspiring and incoherent.”

Curiously, the only continent to have united under a moderately effective form of multinational government is not actually a continent. English-speakers may call Europe “the continent”, but that is because their language evolved on an island off its coast. In fact it is simply a convoluted promontory of Eurasia. This sets geographers a puzzle: where does Europe end? The eastern border especially is fuzzy. The current consensus holds that it runs through Russia along the Urals, gets vague for a while and then follows the Caucasus mountains’ watershed to the Black Sea. That makes demi-Europeans of not just Russia, Turkey and Georgia but also Kazakhstan and perhaps Azerbaijan. It puts Armenia outside Europe, though many Armenians would disagree.

Clearly, geography is not all people mean by Europe. But other definitions also lead to confusion. If Europe is wherever European powers hold sway, colonialism has ensured it spans the globe. Cross the westernmost land border of the Netherlands and you step directly into France, because you are on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, which they split. Define Europe culturally, meanwhile, and you will notice that polka music sounds more like Mexican norteño than like Spanish flamenco, and that Greek ouzo and Lebanese arak are the same drink. Go with political values and you find many democracies outside Europe qualify, while some quasi-dictatorships inside might not. Use religion or race, and you are engaging in bigotry—nowadays seen as un-European.

All this might seem academic, were it not that the question of what defines Europe is vital for countries who want to join the European Union. Of the current serious applicants—six countries in the western Balkans, plus GeorgiaMoldova and Ukraine—most sit well inside the physical continent. They have not yet got into the eu because they have not met its accession criteria. But those criteria themselves are in part a product of centuries of debate over what it means to be European. And eu voters’ gut sense of who belongs in the club is shaped by history.

The idea of Europe started with the ancient Greeks, who contrasted it with despotic, barbarian Asia. After the Roman Empire fell, the dream of reunifying Europe recurred periodically. In the Middle Ages that meant uniting Christendom against Islam. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as religious and imperial wars raged, secular ideas were floated. In 1712 the Abbé de Saint-Pierre called for a “European Union”, and in 1795 Immanuel Kant proposed something similar in his “Perpetual Peace”. Unfortunately the fellow who was busy trying to unite the continent at the time used bloodier means, until he was stopped at Waterloo.

The Enlightenment sense of who belonged in Europe rested on Europeans’ alleged rationality and cosmopolitanism. The 19th century added the idea of intrinsically European cultures and peoples—or, most dangerously, races. Such nationalism meant more wars and, in their guilty aftermath, calls for European unity. The modern European movement started after the first world war. Some of its founders saw it as a way for Europe to compete with America and the Soviet Union. That implied that Russia could never join. Nor, some thought, could Britain, which identified more with its empire than with Europe. (They were right that this was an issue.)

He follows this with several paragraphs of musings about EU expansion, which will ultimately sort itself out. But the notion that “Europe” is a social construct is really more interesting to me.

It’s of course right. Indeed, it’s probably true of all the continents save Australia, which is bounded, and Antarctica, which is essentially uninhabited and is an afterthought on standard world maps.

Asia shares a landmass with Europe so, almost by definition, its beginning and end are just as murky.

Africa would seem pretty cut and dried but I personally don’t think of the Arab states of Northern Africa as “African” but rather part of the Middle East.

The Americas are connected by the Central American isthmus and, while Mexico is generally considered part of North America but the United Nations and others consider it part of Central America. And, for that matter, many in Latin America think of the Americas as a single continent, not two.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. drj says:

    In my mind, “Europe” (which, as an idea, is almost fully coinciding with the EU) is, first and foremost, a coalition of the defeated.

    It’s a group of nations that came to realize through two world wars that the price of military victory would always be too high and that imperialism is, ultimately, a dead end. Compromise and cooperation are necessary to prevent a repeat of the far too costly mistakes of the past. This also puts a significant damper on the open expression of nationalism.

    (By contrast, the US never won a war where the price of victory was simply too high to be worth it, or lost a war in such a way that the continued existence of the nation was at risk.)

    If you look at some of the nations that currently have a hard time committing to this idea you end up with Serbia (which in the 1990s fought a series of wars to maintain Serb domination of the post-Yugoslav space), Hungary (which never got over the Treaty of Trianon and started handing out Hungarian passports to ethnic Hungarians in surrounding countries as soon as the Iron Curtain came down), and, of course, the UK (which never suffered an existential military defeat and which still has a little bit of imperialism going on in Northern Ireland).

    It also explains why certain post-Soviet states are very attracted to this idea. Besides offering a practical alternative to Russian domination, it is also an explicit repudiation of the idea that smaller nations should naturally expect to be dominated by their bigger neighbors. (Russians, by contrast, still see themselves as the civilization-bearing, imperial protectors of all their – literally – lesser neighbors.)

    Now, this isn’t a perfect description. The French, for instance, continued to believe in imperialism abroad (Indochina, Algeria) quite a bit longer than in imperialism nearer to home. But, overall, the idea holds.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    I was about to make a snarky comment that on the left hand side, Europe clearly ends at Ireland, but then realized Iceland is definitely part of Europe, and I imagine Greenland is more tied to Europe than North America.

    I’ve been playing this game called Worldle (not Wordle, although I play that too) for more than a year and it’s been helping me with my abysmal sense of geography. One of my takeaways is that Europe sort of slowly fades into Asia and the Middle East, and vice versa. The only relatively clear distinctions are on the Atlantic and Mediterranean borders.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:


    And let us not forget St Pierre and Miquelon.

  4. Tony W says:

    @MarkedMan: I play that as well, also https://globle-game.com/ is another fun one.

  5. JohnSF says:

    I’d argue neither the Greeks nor the Romans though of Europe as concept or geographic entity much at all.
    In both cases the heartland was the Mediterranean world, and the wealthiest and most populous areas included thoroughly Romanised or Hellenized areas of North Africa and western Asia.

    The greatest Greek and Roman cities of the Hellenistic/Roman periods, beside Rome and Constantinople, were Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum.
    And Constantinople is within spitting distance of Asia.

    Same applied re- early Christianity, which only gradually spread to the Germanic populations of Europe outside the old imperial limes.

    I’d argue the concept of separate Europe only began to emerge with the Islamic conquests that sheared away the southern and eastern “non-European” portions of the Classical world, which was sealed by the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
    Even then, the term “Christendom” was much more familiar.

    IIRC usage of the Europe was sometimes used to refer to Latin Christian areas after c. 1000AD; and picked up again as a common definition of cultural similarity after the Reformation and the beginning of Oceanic voyages etc.

    There was simply a need for a quick reference term for a region of the globe that was perceived as requiring both culturally and geographic definition.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Tony W: Oh, that’s a good one. It’ll definitely help my geography challenged brain!

    There’s an oddball one that I find helps me with geo-politics more than the economics it is intended for: Tradle. It’s a little hard to describe, but basically the goal is to be given a country’s total exports in dollars and identify which country it represents. In addition to the total amount, you are given a square, which is then subdivided into types of export category (wheat, refined petroleum, automobiles, etc). The subdivisions are sized according to the percentage of exports they represent. (Much easier to grasp if you visit rather than try to parse my poor explanation.) It’s pretty interesting and it made me appreciate relative sizes, extraction based versus agricultural versus manufacturing economies, how almost all large exporters are highly diverse (with exceptions that are interesting in and of themselves, like Saudi Arabia), and a hundred other things. One piece of trivia: I always “knew” that Papua New Guinea’s economy was heavily based on copper mining, but it turns out that despite having the largest mine in the world it makes up only 7% of the economy. But the country is heavily based on resource extraction. It turns out Chile is the both the top exporter of copper ore and copper at $50B a year, and the country where copper makes up the largest share of the economy at just over 50%.

    I know. I’m geekier than you even suspected. Alas, in the end we have no secrets from the OTB commentariat

  7. Kathy says:


    IMO, nearly everyone has a fuzzy picture of Alexander’s campaigns and rule, because he pretty much ignored all of Europe west of Greece. Instead he first went south into Egypt, then east into Persia and beyond.

    None of which denies, or negates, the plain fact that Europe went on to pretty much conquer and set the model for the whole world starting in the XV century.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    Europe is a place where I can find a great hotel, have excellent food, wander through buildings erected by tyrants with a sense of style, and see art paid for by Medicis, all with no danger of gunfire.

  9. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    …all with no danger of gunfire.

    Not entirely true, these days, I’m afraid.
    There’s some Medici related art in the museum at Odesa, IIRC.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    Where Europe has begun to fail relative to the United States is coffee. Italy still knows how to pull an espresso, but France gave up long ago. I remember driving from Florence to Carcassonne, having perfect espressos anywhere I stopped in Italy, and once over the border into France? Coffee machines, and not good ones. Appalling. Granted the baked goods are far superior in France, but WTF happened to the Church of Caffeine in France? There are 205 Starbucks in France, just 18 in Italy. That’s what happens when you let your standards slip.

    In the UK it’s Costa which owned by Coca Cola and Starbucks and Café Nero which makes a decent cup and is at least British owned while pretending to be Italian. And Pret, of course, which I believe is German pretending to be French.

    The decline of Europe can be measured in Starbucks and McDonalds. There are more than 1500 Mickey D’s in France. France! That’s it, man. Game over, man, game over.

  11. Scott says:

    @Michael Reynolds: When I was stationed in northern Japan, the nearest McDonalds was 3 hrs away in Morioka and the nearest KFC was 45 minutes in Hachinohe. Our fast food was the ramen shops. Would work out in the evening, go into town, soak in the hot baths, and then walk over to a noodle shop and have a big bowl of ramen and draft Sapporo. I look back on those days very fondly.

  12. Andy says:

    IMO “Europe” isn’t primarily about geographical boundaries, but cultural ones. But geography does matter – the great and sparsely populated expanses east of the Urals serves a similar function as the Sahara in separating North Africa from the rest of the continent.

    But I think I like@Michael Reynolds: answer is the best. We’ll spend several weeks in western and northern Europe next year, visiting my brother in Germany (who has lived there for about 30+ years now) and seeing some places we haven’t been before.

  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Scott: The best bowl of ramen I have ever had was in a tiny little one-off shop in Kamakura. There were 8 seats at a counter, which was in a U shape. The wife worked the front, and the husband worked the kitchen, and passed out food through a little window/hole. We wanted to say how much we liked the food, and he stuck his head out and smiled at us. She seemed kind of disgusted by the whole affair.

    Curiously enough, the best bowl of noodles I’ve had was served in the dining room attached to the Terracotta Warriors site in China. It’s hard to describe why they were so good – just a lot of punch in that broth, I guess.

  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Africa would seem pretty cut and dried but I personally don’t think of the Arab states of Northern Africa as “African” but rather part of the Middle East.

    Two of my good friends with families in that area (Palestine and Libya, respectively), introduced me to their preferred cultural / geographic term: SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) to describe the common cultural aspects of much of that part of the world.

  15. Beth says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I can’t tell you how bummed I am that the Pandy killed all the Prets in Chicago. I love that place. The one’s in london were better though cause they had a better soup and potato chip selection. Also, weirder sandwiches, but the quality here was always good.

  16. JohnSF says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:
    In some ways parts of south-east Europe have considerable cultural similarities with parts of south-west Asia.
    One of the reasons why that area used to be referred to as the Near East.
    Usually taken to cover the Balkans in Europe (Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey-in-Europe), Anatolia (Turkey in Asia) and the Levant (what is today Cyprus, coastal Syria, Lebanon, Israel, sometimes also Alexandria any Cyrenaica).
    To an outsider the cuisine, music, traditional dress etc of the Balkans and Anatolia into the Caucasus can often seem to have marked similarities.

    The edges of “Europe” were often rather fuzzy. And to some extent still are. Turkey, after all, is still as aspirant candidate for membership of the EU.
    It not that long ago that Algeria was nominally part of Metropolitan France. And there remain Spanish enclaves on the Moroccan shore that have been Spanish since 1415.
    Not to mention that both Andalusia, in Spain, and Sicily, still show considerable traces of Moorish influence.

  17. gVOR10 says:

    It’s taking a cultural concept and trying to fit it to a geographic reality. Semantics. How does that work?

  18. DK says:

    In my experience, Europe ends where the good food and/or great sex stops. So…at whatever EU airport I’m using to connect to JFK and EWR?

  19. dazedandconfused says:


    I suppose the dubbing of Turkey as “Asia Minor” shows where the line ends in the south, anyway. The line seems to roughly follow the line where the Italian Romans* stopped, which was where they ceased to find anything worth looting and dug in. It seems unless the Roman Catholic church had a foothold there, it ain’t “Europe”.

    *An acknowledgement the Byzantines called themselves “Romans”, but they never were, not really.

  20. drj says:


    I suppose the dubbing of Turkey as “Asia Minor” shows…

    The Latin word “minor” in Asia Minor is derived from the Greek “mikros”/”mikra.”

    “Mikra Asia” should almost certainly be understood as “Nearer Asia” (nearer from a Greek perspective), similar to “Little Russia” (and old name for Ukraine), which should be understood as “Nearer Russia” (again, from a Greek/Byzantine perspective). There is no value implied.

    Also, the Romans didn’t stop at Asia Minor’s borders because there was nothing worthwhile left to conquer, but because they were eventually driven back by the Sasanian (Persian) Empire. In fact, the Romans briefly managed to rule over Mesopotomia up to the Persian Gulf.

    the Byzantines called themselves “Romans”, but they never were, not really.

    The Romaioi themselves would beg to differ. It would also be hard to point to a specific moment when the Eastern Roman Empire stopped being Roman. There is significant continuity between, let’s say, Constantine and Justinian (and beyond).

    I think it’s fairer to say that people in the West tend to look at the Roman Republic and, perhaps, the very early Empire as part of their cultural heritage, rather than the later Empire. But that ignores a couple of centuries of history and has more to do with the re-appreciation of Roman culture during the Renaissance and beyond.

    It seems unless the Roman Catholic church had a foothold there, it ain’t “Europe”.

    While this is certainly defensible to a certain extent, the “Roman” in Roman Catholic has nothing to do with the Romans, but rather with the Patriarchate of Rome AKA the Apostolic See in (much) later theological and jurisdictional opposition to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

    Traditionally, there are five major Christian patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, which – at the time of founding – were all part of the Roman Empire.

  21. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It might help the French to adopt more punitive tort laws.


    It would also be hard to point to a specific moment when the Eastern Roman Empire stopped being Roman.

    Oh, definitely when historians began to refer to the rump Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire. There was no recovering from that.

    More seriously, one can argue it was then Italy, along with Rome, was lost to the Goths. A situation Justinian made Belisarius do his utmost to rectify. Alas, that was only temporarily successful. And what is the Roman Empire without Rome?

    Or maybe after the Great Schism, when the Roman Catholic church split off from the Byzantine Orthodox church?

    Either way, the legions kept being legions well into the long decline, and kept carrying the banner embossed with SPQR, which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, which means The Senate and People of Rome, which goes back all the way to the Roman Republic.

    One can argue the slogan was hypocritical after Augustus, since the legions were now fighting for the emperor, definitely not for the Senate and maybe not for the people (the legions being professional standing armies now, and often made largely of Germanic and other tribes). And doubly so when Rome was lost to the Empire, not to mention when eastern Roman legions invaded and took over Rome for a short while.

    But to the day Mehmed II blasted the Theodosian walls and other fortifications and captured Constantinople, it was the Roman Empire. Hell, Mehmed styled himself Caesar of Rome right after that.

  22. JohnSF says:


    It seems unless the Roman Catholic church had a foothold there, it ain’t “Europe”.

    That’s part of the modern divide, but a rather different one in some ways. After about 1600 as I mentioned before, the Balkans were regarded as part of the “Near East”, and in many regards not “really” European.
    But under the Roman Empire, whether pre-Christian or Christian versions, the later Orthhox/Catholic divide wan not really a thing. That only developed, slowly, after the end of the Empire in the west. Say post-1000 before it was a real split.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: SWANA is a useful coinage but not one that seems to have caught on. Despite the obvious problems of “Middle East,” it’s remarkably entrenched. I hear/see MENA (Middle East and North Africa) much more often than SWANA (almost never).