Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

2.3: Regions of Western Europe

  • Page ID
    148044
  • Learning Objectives

    1. Locate and describe the various traditional regions of Western Europe.
    2. Outline how the physical geography varies from region to region.
    3. Explain how each region has met the challenges of retaining its cultural identity or uniqueness.
    4. Summarize how each region has developed an industrialized economy.

    Europe has been traditionally divided into regions based on location according to the four points of the compass: Eastern Europe, southern Europe, Western Europe, and northern Europe. The British Isles are often considered a separate region but can be included as a part of Western Europe. These regions are purely geographical regions that may share similar physical geography or cultural traits based on physical geographical demands. For historical political purposes, Europe is divided into the two regions of Western Europe and Eastern Europe. In this case, the region of Western Europe includes the regions of northern Europe, southern Europe, Central Europe, and the British Isles. Eastern Europe is everything east of Germany, Austria, and Italy. These regional labels are used more for identification than for regional analysis. They serve as traditional labels of geographic location.

    Figure 2.16 Traditional Regions of Europe

    d17d110dcc23ca847b5b3d9aa8ec4ef9.jpg

    The traditional regions of Europe are not as relevant today as they have been historically with the creation of the European Union (EU). Economic and political relationships are more integrated than they were in past eras when nation-states and empires were more significant. Economic conditions have often superseded cultural factors and have intensified the need for increased integration. Cultural forces have traditionally supported nationalistic movements that work to preserve the culture, heritage, and traditions of a people. Regional cultural differences remain the social fabric of local communities that support the retention of their identity. Modern transportation and communication technology has brought this cornucopia of European identities into one single sphere of global recognition.

    Northern Europe

    Europe has many different cultural identities within its continent. Northern Europe has traditionally included Iceland, Finland, and the three Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. These countries are often referred to as the Nordic countries. All these countries were influenced by Viking heritage and expansion. Their capital cities are also major ports, and the largest cities of each country are their primate cities. The languages of the three Scandinavian countries are from the Germanic language group and are mutually intelligible. Finnish is not an Indo-European language but is instead from the Uralic language family. Most of Iceland’s inhabitants are descendents of Scandinavian Vikings. Protestant Christianity has prevailed in northern Europe since about 1000 CE. The Lutheran Church has traditionally been the state church until recent years. These countries were kingdoms, and their royal families remain highly regarded members of society. The colder northern climate has helped shape the cultural activities and the winter sports that are part of the region’s heritage. Peripheral isolation from the rest of Europe because of their northern location and dividing bodies of water have allowed the northern culture to be preserved for centuries and shape the societies that now exist in northern Europe.

    Figure 2.17 Port in Stockholm, Sweden

    4b6d32f64a8685b96528eedfde31f795.jpg

    Human rights, education, and social concerns are high priorities of the governments of northern Europe, and the quality of these elements rank highly by global comparisons. Standards of living are among the highest in Europe. Isolation in northern Europe does create an element of economic cost, and transportation technology has been leveraged to address this. A modern bridge has been constructed across the Baltic Sea from Denmark to Sweden to increase the flow of people, goods, and materials between the Scandinavian Peninsula and mainland Europe. Iceland is the most remote of the Nordic countries. Its small population—less than a half million people—is connected to Europe by sea and air transportation and communication technologies. Almost all elementary school children in the Nordic countries are taught English as a second language. Fish, meat, and potatoes are traditional dietary staples; fish in particular has been an important food source. The cuisine of the region is not noted for being spicy. Northern Europe has worked diligently to integrate itself with the global community and yet maintain its cultural identity.

    As a standard practice, the northern European countries have exploited the opportunities and advantages of their natural resources to expand their economies. Sweden, northern Europe’s largest country, has used its natural iron ore supply to develop its manufacturing sector. Sweden was the production base of Saab and Volvo vehicles as well as other high-tech products; however, GM purchased the Saab auto division in 2000 and some of its automobiles were manufactured in Mexico. In 2010, Saab was sold back to European investors and production resumed in Sweden. Volvo Car Corporation was purchased by Ford Motor Corporation in 1999 and then acquired by a Chinese automaker in 2010.

    Finland has vast timber resources and is one of Europe’s major sources of processed lumber. It was the original manufacturer of Nokia cell phones, an example of its technological advancements. Nokia is the largest manufacturer of mobile phones in the world and has production facilities in eight different countries.

    Norway has been benefiting from the enormous oil and natural gas reserves under the North Sea. Fishing and modest agricultural activities had been Norway’s traditional means of gaining wealth, but now it is the export of the much-in-demand energy resources. Because of its economic and energy independence, Norway has opted not to join the EU.

    Vikings were masters of the seas and colonized Greenland, which is located next to Canada and is considered to be the world’s largest island. Danish colonization in the eighteenth century included Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, which are located between Scotland and Iceland. Both are now under the government of Denmark but retain a high level of self-rule and autonomy, which has aided them in holding on to their cultural identity. Greenland has also opted not to become a part of the EU even though Denmark is a member. Greenland only had a population of about 57,670 in 2011, and 80 percent of its surface is covered with ice. Fish is Greenland’s main export, but minerals, diamonds, and gold are also present in viable amounts.

    Denmark has a consumer economy with a high standard of living. This Scandinavian country is often ranked as the least corrupt country in the world and has the happiest people. The country has supported a positive environment and implemented strong measures to protect its natural areas. Denmark’s main exports are food products and energy. The country has sizeable oil resources in the North Sea but also receives over 15 percent of its electricity from wind turbines.

    The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have often been included in the northern European designation because of their northern location. Estonia has the strongest similarities in religion, traditions, and culture, and geographic literature often has included it as a part of northern Europe. The Baltic states have been associated with Eastern Europe through the Soviet era but, like their neighbors to the north, are becoming more economically integrated with Western Europe.

    Northern Europe is a peripheral region. Southern Sweden has an advanced industrial base and resembles a core area. Sweden’s northern portion and the main parts of the other Nordic countries act as sources of raw materials for Europe’s urban core industrial region. In the core-peripheral spatial relationship, northern Europe most resembles a semiperipheral region that has attributes of both the urban core and the rural periphery.

    Norway, Sweden, and Finland are quite large in area but are not densely populated compared with other European nations. Sweden ranks as the fourth-largest European country in physical area. Sweden is larger than the US state of California, but in the 2010 census, it had less than ten million people. In 2010, Finland, Norway, and Denmark all had less than six million people each.

    The cultures and societies of northern Europe have progressed along similar paths; that is, they have advanced from once Viking-dominated lands into modern democratic and socially mature nations. Northern Europe is known for its concern for the social welfare of its citizens. Their strong egalitarian ideals have contributed to extensive advancements in free medical care, free education, and free social services for all, regardless of nationality or minority status. Civil rights for minorities, women, and other groups is assured and protected. Denmark doesn’t have a legal age for consumption of alcoholic beverages, though tradition sets the age at about fourteen. Culture and the arts are well developed; examples include everything from the Nobel Peace Prize to Hans Christian Anderson to the 1970s chart-topping pop group ABBA. Sweden has become a major exporter of music worldwide. Rock, hip-hop, and pop music are common genres. With English as a widely spoken language in Scandinavia, music and cultural trends have a larger export market in places such as the United States and Britain.

    Southern Europe

    Southern Europe includes three large peninsulas that extend into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Iberian Peninsula consists of Spain and Portugal. The Pyrenees mountain range separates the Iberian Peninsula from France. Greece, the most southern country on the Balkan Peninsula, includes hundreds of surrounding islands and the large island of Crete. The Italian Peninsula is the shape of a boot with the Apennine Mountains running down its center. Italy also includes the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Technically, the island country of Cyprus is also included in southern Europe. There are five ministates in this region. The small island of Malta is located to the south of Sicily and is an independent country. Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, and Vatican City are also independent states located within the region. Southern Europe’s type C climate, moderated by the water that surrounds it, is often referred to as a Mediterranean climate, which has mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.

    Rural-to-urban shift in southern Europe has not been as strong as that of Western Europe. Only about 50 percent of the people in Portugal are urban; in Spain and Greece, about 60 percent are urban.

    Italy is more representative of Europe, with about 68 percent of the population urbanized. Italy is also divided, with northern Italy being more industrialized than southern Italy. The southern regions of Italy, including the island of Sicily, are more rural with fewer industries. Northern Italy has the metropolitan city of Milan as an anchor for its global industrial and financial sector in the Lombardy region, which includes the city of Turin and the port of Genoa. This northern region of Italy has the economic muscle to be one of Europe’s leading manufacturing centers. The so-called Ancona Line can be drawn across the middle of Italy from Ancona on the east coast to Rome on the west coast to separate the industrial north with the more agrarian south. The north also has the noted cultural cities of Venice, Florence, and Pisa.

    A similar situation exists in Spain. The urbanized Catalonia region around Barcelona in the northeast has high-tech industries and a high standard of living. Southern Spain has large rural areas with economies heavily based on agricultural production. Portugal and Greece are not as industrialized and do not have the same economic opportunities. Historically, southern Europe, Portugal, and Greece in particular each have had a much lower gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than northern or Central Europe. Their economies have been much more aligned with the economic periphery than with the industrial core region of Europe. Greece has had serious economic difficulty in the past few years.

    Southern European countries have much larger populations than their northern European counterparts. Italy has about sixty million people in an area smaller than Norway, which has less than five million. Spain has about forty million; both Portugal and Greece have more than ten million. Cultural factors are also different here than in northern Europe. The culture of southern Europe has been built around agriculture. Traditional cuisine is based on locally grown fresh food and wine. Olive oil and wine have been major agricultural exports. The main languages of Iberia and Italy are based on the Romance language group, and Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. The most dominant religious affiliation in the south is Roman Catholicism, except in Greece, where the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church is prominent.

    Figure 2.18 Spain’s Autonomous Communities

    6bcd1c82e5f3fcf5f6155695c3bcf594.jpg

    Because of its diversity, Spain is not categorized as a nation-state.

    Spain is the most diverse nation in southern Europe with a number of distinct ethnic groups. The Basques in the north along the French border would like to separate and create their own nation-state. The region of Galicia in northwest Spain is an autonomous region and was once a kingdom unto itself. There are many other autonomous communities in Spain, each with its own distinct heritage and culture. Farther east in the Mediterranean is the island state of Cyprus, which is divided by Greek and Turkish ethnic groups. The southern part of the island is dominated by Greek heritage and culture, and the northern part of the island is dominated by Turkish culture and traditions. Islam is the main religion of the Turkish north. The people of southern Europe are diverse and hold to many different traditions but are tied together by the sea and the land, which create similar lifestyles and economic activities.

    Special Section: The Cities of Italy

    Italy has a population of about sixty million people, with about 68 percent living in cities. Italian culture balances the food and lifestyle of the rural countryside with the history and heritage of the cities. Cultural regions such as Tuscany, along the northwest coast, or Sicily, the island to the south, evoke thoughts of Italian heritage and culture. The large cities of Italy each have their own draw and persona that emulates the nation’s heritage and history. Italy has four cities with population estimates of over one million people each, and a number of others are major cultural centers. The metropolitan areas around these cities can be extensive.

    Table 2.2 Major Italian Cities

    Rank by Population Population Estimate
    1. Rome (capital) 3.357 million
    2. Milan 2.962 million
    3. Naples 2.27 million
    4. Turin (Torino) 1.662 million
    5. Palermo 872,000
    8. Florence 381,762
    13. Venice 297,743
    Population is for city only and not for metropolitan area.

    Rome, Italy’s capital and its largest city, was at the center of the Roman Empire and has a significant historical connection to the culture and heritage of Italy. Rome is also home to Vatican City, which holds a separate political identity. The Vatican City is home to the pope, who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Rome provides a historical and political center for the nation of Italy and is located along the Ancona Line, which distinguishes northern Italy from southern Italy.

    The northern city of Milan is a core industrial center for the nation and for Europe. With a large metropolitan area, the city of Milan has a long history as a center of industry and power. The city continues to hold its powerful status and has expanded its international reach into the world of high-end fashion and the arts.

    Naples is located along the west coast to the south of Rome. Founded by the Greeks as a colony, Naples was transferred to the Roman Empire. This historic city is home to many artistic, musical, and cultural activities that emulate the heritage of the Italian people from the time of the Renaissance.

    Figure 2.19

    35cace6800b2568d1652388dada9c722.jpg

    The central part of the city of Naples, Italy, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Italy is densely populated with many historical cities emulating the culture and traditions of each part of the country.

    The industrial city of Turin (Torino) is located in northwest Italy in the Alpine region on the banks of the Po River. Turin is second only to Milan in its industrial capacity within Italy. Automobile manufacturing as well as prestigious universities, art galleries, and cultural centers can be found here. The hosting of the 2006 Winter Olympics gave witness to Turin’s capacity and success.

    Palermo is located on the island of Sicily. Founded by the Phoenicians, this city became the capital of the kingdom of Sicily. Palermo is the center of culture and cuisine for Sicily and has been a destination for tourists from around the world. Italy’s mild Mediterranean climate has enhanced tourism opportunities for many Italian cities such as Palermo.

    Florence and Venice each have their own unique characteristics. Traditionally, Florence has been a city of commerce, trade, and the arts. Located in the Tuscany region, it is often referred to as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is noted for its art and architecture. Venice is located on the northeast coast of Italy at the edge of the Adriatic Sea. The city was a powerful trade and commerce center in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. Often referred to with romantic overtones, the city is built on 117 small islands using canals as streets. The uniqueness of the landscape, arts, food, and architecture make this city one of the major tourist destinations in Italy.