Europe is a continent of many peoples, languages, and cultures. Today, more than 748 million people live in Europe. For statistical purposes, the United Nations’ Geoscheme divides the continent into four different subregions: Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Southern Europe, and Northern Europe. Each of these four subregions consist of several countries. Some of these countries are small and sparsely populated, while others are large and heavily populated. All of Europe’s countries are generally classified as developed countries, though some are more developed than others. It is also important to note that the divisions created by the UN Geoscheme do not necessarily reflect the historical or current divisions of Europe.
Eastern Europe is the largest and most populous subregion in Europe, with approximately 292 million people, and a total land area of 18,052,768 sq. km. The Eastern European subregion stretches from the Ural Mountains in the east to the western borders of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. It consists of 10 countries. Russia is by far the largest and most populous country in Eastern Europe. Most of Russia’s land mass, however, is part of Asia, not Europe, as Russia is a transcontinental country, and has territory in both Europe and Asia.
Russia and the other 9 countries that make up the subregion of Eastern Europe once comprised what was commonly known as the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine were all republics in the Soviet Union, until it collapsed in 1991. Today, most of Eastern Europe is part of the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Though the Cold War has long past, there is still a struggle for influence in Eastern Europe. On one side are NATO and the EU. On the other side is Russia. The EU and NATO seek to further expand into Eastern Europe, while Russia hopes to halt any further NATO or EU expansion, and regain the influence that it had over the countries of the subregion during the Cold War.
Western Europe consists of 9 countries, and has a total population of about 196 million. The subregion is home to two of Europe’s biggest political and economic powers, France and Germany. Combined, they contain more than half of Western Europe’s population. Germany is the most populous country in Western Europe, with a population of approximately 83 million, while France has a population of about 63 million. Germany has the world’s fourth largest economy, while France has the seventh largest economy in the world. Formerly bitter enemies, Germany and France are now the driving force of European integration, especially after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU at the beginning of 2021.
Among the other, smaller countries of Western Europe are the so-called Low Countries of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Further south, on the southern coast of France is the tiny principality of Monaco, which is distinguished by, among other things, being the most densely populated nation-state on Earth. At much higher elevations are the Alpine countries of Switzerland, Austria, and the small principality of Liechtenstein. All the countries of Western Europe, with the exception of Switzerland, Monaco, and Liechtenstein, are members of the EU. France, Germany, and the Low Countries are also members of NATO.
Western Europe has long been regarded as the home of world-renowned cultural icons. Classical musicians, like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin. Artists like Van Gogh, Renoir, and Chagall, not to mention some of the world’s greatest orchestras, museums, and galleries.
Northern Europe consists of 10 countries. The subregion has a population of about 106 million, which makes it the least populous of the European subregions. More than half of this population resides in one country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK is the mother country of the once mighty British Empire, one of the most powerful empires in human history. At one time, people used to say that the sun never sets on the British Empire, because the British had possessions in every corner of the world. The UK is no longer the juggernaut that it once was, but it is still the most populous country in Northern Europe, with a population of nearly 68 million. It also has the subregion’s largest economy, which is also the fifth largest in the world.
The other countries of Northern Europe include the countries of Scandinavia, Finland, the Baltic States, Ireland, and Iceland. The countries of Scandinavia are well-known for their cradle-to-grave welfare states. Sweden is very famous for its many lakes, and Norway for its many fjords. Iceland is home to the world’s oldest parliament, the Althing. It is also Europe’s least populous country. Only about 343,000 people live in Iceland. The Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, are Northern Europe’s newest countries, having regained their independence upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. All the countries of Northern Europe, except the UK, Iceland, and Norway, are now part of the EU. Most are also members of NATO.
Southern Europe is where much of Europe’s history began. It is where the great, ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome were born. The advancements that these ancient civilizations made in governance, science, architecture, and the arts helped shape both Europe and the rest of the world. But Southern Europe is more than just the ruins of ancient civilizations. Today, it is home to 15 countries. Altogether, these countries have a population of approximately 152 million people. The most populous country in Southern Europe is Italy, which has more than 60 million people living within its borders. Not too far behind is Spain, which boasts a population of about 46 million. Southern Europe is also home to the world’s smallest and least populous country, Vatican City, which has less than a thousand inhabitants.
Some of Europe’s most recent armed conflicts have taken place in Southern Europe, most notably in the Balkans. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s resulted in much bloodshed. Fortunately, however, this bloodshed eventually gave way to happier times. Today, most of the Balkan states are part of the EU and NATO, as are most of the countries of Southern Europe in general. Southern Europe is also home to Europe’s biggest city, Istanbul, though ironically, much of Istanbul and its population technically reside in Asia.
Central Europe is not part of the UN Geoscheme for Europe. Moreover, although the concept of Central Europe exists both historically and currently, there is no consensus as to which countries should be considered part of it. For the sake of argument, it is probably safe to say that there are up to 9 countries that could be considered part of Central Europe. These are Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Austria, and Switzerland. All these countries are part of different subregions of Europe as defined by the UN Geoscheme.
Thus, Central Europe is a European crossroads of sorts, where different languages and cultures of the continent meet. The region, for example, is home to both Slavic-speaking states like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, as well as German-speaking states like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Central Europe also contains countries that were on different sides of the east-west divide during the Cold War. Just as it is in Western Europe, Germany is also the largest and most populous country in Central Europe. Indeed, Germany has always figured prominently in the history of Central Europe, beginning with the Holy Roman Empire that controlled much of the region in medieval times.