Why Europe? – Reflections on a blurry term

In the time of the ancient Greeks, the view of the world included three different continents: Africa, Asia and Europe and this view is still present in our modern way of thinking. Nowadays many people speak about Europe but it seems that everyone means something else. There seems to be not a clear idea of where Europe begins and where it ends and on which criteria such boundaries should be based. This raises the questions: what is Europe? Where is Europe? And most of all: Why is Europe?


On one side the limits of Europe are clear and pretty undisputable: the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea, the Bosporus, the Black sea and the Caspian sea are dividing Europe from its neighbors Africa and Asia. But looking eastwards, it becomes more complicated. In school I learned that the eastern boundaries of Europe are defined by the Ural mountains, the Ural river and further by the Kuma-Manych Depression and the Sea of Azov…or was it the Caucasus mountains? (Already this question was depending on the geography teacher that was giving the lesson)


Looking at a world map, it seems arbitrary and almost grotesque to draw a line between Europe and Asia, dividing it into two different continents, since it’s clearly visible that Eurasia is one huge landmass – the biggest on the planet incidentally (and strictly speaking, even Africa can be seen as a part of this landmass). Thus, in geographical terms, this division is lacking a profound scientific basis and there is no definition of such a border in the international law. This makes the inner-Eurasian boundaries a historical and cultural construction and Europe itself more of a peninsula or subcontinent of Eurasia. In geological terms – by the way – it’s even more tricky: For example Italy is part of the African plate and Greece and Anatolia are tectonic micro-plates.

Keeping Europe and Asia apart is mostly argued with cultural differences and proximities which, without a doubt, do exist. But to be honest: don’t the Old Bazaar of Skopje or the inner cities of Shkodra and Sarajevo already seem a bit like the middle-East with their minarets and visible Ottoman influence? And what makes for example Ufa or Kazan more European (or less Asian) than Omsk or Tscheljabinsk? Furthermore, inside of Europe, there are enough cultural differences between, for instance, Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula to declare it two separate “continents”. Hence such a differentiation is always arbitrary in some way. Often you can see maps of Europe leaving out Russia completely or including Turkey and the Caucasus region as a part of Europe.


Perhaps this separation is a relic from a time when European powers (first Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish, later British, French, Germans…and Russians?) dominated the world and declared their lands to be an independent continent – even more: the centre of the world (the Greenwich meridian is going through London) – in contrast to the peoples considered “uncivilized” (the Nazi-propaganda in World War II was often referring to the approaching Red Army as “Mongolian Hordes”). But on the other hand, in ethno-linguistic terms, most Europeans speak an “Indo-European” language – which makes the tongues from Iran to Ireland relatives.


In public debates, Europe is often used as a synonym for the EU and often people refer to a European identity. But is there even such thing as a European identity? And if: is it directly linked to being part of the EU? What about the Balkans, Turkey and Russia? Aren’t these countries somewhere in-between, so: more Eurasian countries? Why do Israel and the Caucasian Republics participate in the European Song Contest and why is Cyprus part of the EU, even though all these countries lie in Asia by definition?

I think it’s time to overcome this sectionalist world-view and try to focus more on what connects the peoples – be it rivers, roads or seas. Hence, in my view, it makes little sense to center on separation while it’s possible to go by train from Paris to Vladivostok or travel along the Silk Road from Italy to India, Mongolia and China. The Earth is a globe and where its centre is depends on your point of view and political or cultural definitions, but these are always more or less random, biased and influenced by interests.

Sascha Schlüter

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