Europe has been traditionally divided into regions based on location according to the compass’s four points: 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.
The traditional regions of Europe are not as relevant today as they have been historical with the creation of the European Union (EU). Economic and political relationships are more integrated than 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 Economic conditions have often superseded cultural factors and have intensified the need for increased integration.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 preserve a people’s culture, heritage, and traditions. 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 collection of European identities into one single sphere of global recognition.
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 and 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 descendants 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 its heritage. Peripheral isolation from the rest of Europe because of their northern location and dividing water bodies has allowed the northern culture to be preserved for centuries and shape the societies in northern Europe.
Human rights, education, and social concerns are high priorities of northern Europe’s governments, and the quality of these elements rank highly based on the annual World Happiness Report. 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 of less than 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. The Nordic Diet consists of fish, meat, and potatoes are traditional dietary staples. 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 their natural resources’ opportunities and advantages 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 and 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. Ford Motor Corporation purchased Volvo Car Corporation in 1999 and was then acquired by a Chinese automaker in 2010. Finland has vast timber resources and is one of Europe’s significant 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 globally 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 exporting 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, located next to Canada, and is considered the world’s largest island. Danish colonization included Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, located between Scotland and Iceland in the eighteenth century. Both are now under Denmark’s government but retain a high level of self-rule and autonomy, which has helped them hold 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 roughly 56,600 in 2019, 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 globally 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 and 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, culture, and geographic literature has often 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 other Nordic countries’ main parts act as sources of raw materials for Europe’s urban core industrial region. In the core-peripheral spatial relationship, northern Europe resembles a semi-peripheral region with both the urban core and the rural periphery.
Norway, Sweden, and Finland are quite large in area but are not densely populated than other European nations. Sweden ranks as the fourth-largest European country in physical size. Sweden is larger than the US state of California, but in 2019, it has roughly 10.2 million people. In 2019, Finland, Norway, and Denmark all had less than six million people each.
The cultures and societies of northern Europe have progressed along similar paths; 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 significant 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 does not have a legal age for alcoholic beverages consumption, though tradition sets the age at about fourteen. Culture and the arts are well developed, including giving the annual Nobel Peace Prize. Sweden has become a significant 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 broader export market in places such as the United States and Britain.
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 Crete’s large island. 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 surrounding it, is often referred to as a Mediterranean climate, which has mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The 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 is 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, including 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 Italy from Ancona on the east coast to Rome on the west coast to separate the industrial north from 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, in particular, southern Europe, Portugal, and Greece 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 Europe’s industrial core region. Greece has had severe 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. Iberia and Italy’s primary languages 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.
Spain is the most diverse nation in southern Europe with several distinct ethnic groups. The Basques in the north along the French border would like to separate and create their 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 distinct heritage and culture. Farther east in the Mediterranean is the island state of Cyprus, divided by Greek and Turkish ethnic groups. The southern part of the island is dominated by Greek heritage and culture, and Turkish culture and traditions dominate the northern part of the island. 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, creating similar lifestyles and economic activities.
In the regional sense of location, when discussing the European continent’s political geography, the specific states located in the western part of the European mainland are often referred to as Central Europe. Germany and France are the two dominant states, with Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg making up the Benelux countries. Switzerland and Austria border the Alpine region. The ministate of Liechtenstein is located on the border between Switzerland and Austria. France is the only country with coastlines on both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. These countries are located in Europe’s core economic region and have stable democratic governments and a relatively high standard of living by world comparisons.
Central Europe is a powerhouse of global economics. The Rhine River is a pathway for industrial activity from southern Germany to Europe’s busiest port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, while Western France has the EU’s political capital along the Rhine at Strasbourg. To the south is France’s second-largest city, Lyon, a major industrial center for modern technology. Germany had the historical Ruhr industrial complex along the Rhine that supported the high-tech industries in southern Germany in the cities of Stuttgart, Mannheim, and Munich. Germany is the most populous country in Europe, with over 82 million people in 2019. Germany is also Europe’s largest economy and has the largest GDP overall as a country. Belgium has important business centers in Brussels and Antwerp, whereas Switzerland is noted for its banking and financial markets. Luxembourg has one of the highest GDP per capita in all of Europe. Austria is noted for its high level of cultural activities in Vienna and Salzburg. All these countries complement each other in creating one of the dominant economic core areas in the world.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the political geography of Central Europe was not conducive to the high level of economic cooperation that now exists. In World War and World War II, Germany and France were on opposite sides, and the Benelux countries were caught in the middle. The cultural differences between the Germans and the French start with the differences in language and religious affiliation. Germany was divided after World War II into East Germany and West Germany, separated by the so-called Iron Curtain. East Germany was under a Communist government, and West Germany was a capitalist democracy. They were reunited in 1990 when the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall came down. The two countries merged under one government. Europe is gradually being united economically, but each country or region still retains its cultural uniqueness.
The Benelux Countries
The Benelux countries have a great deal in common historically. Before the economic union that created the term Benelux, these countries were collectively referred to as the Low Countries, so-called because of their relative position to sea level. The Benelux countries are some of the most densely populated countries. They have managed to work together toward a common economic objective despite their cultural differences.
The capital and largest city in Belgium is Brussels, with the other urban areas being Antwerp and Ghent’s ports. Belgium is split into three broad geographic areas. The dominant language in Flanders’ northern region is Dutch (Flemish), and the people are known as Flemings. In the southern region of Wallonia, most people speak French and are known as Walloons. German is the third official language and is spoken along the eastern border.
When the Industrial Revolution diffused across the English Channel and arrived in Europe, Belgium was one of the first countries to adapt to technological developments. Belgium remains heavily industrialized and is a significant exporter of products, including polished diamonds, food products, nonferrous metals, technology, petroleum products, and plastics. In general, Belgium imports the raw materials to manufacture these goods for export. Belgium also has a significant services sector. The services sector, including real estate, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment, thrives because Brussels is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and components of the EU. Many countries and organizations maintain Brussels offices to have easy access to these headquarters; therefore, Brussels is the temporary home to many diplomats and foreign business people.
The European country of the Netherlands also includes the colonies of the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean. Sometimes called Holland, the Netherlands is two provinces (North Holland and South Holland) in the country’s northwestern part. The largest city is Amsterdam. The Hague is the seat of government and is home to the United Nations International Court of Justice. Rotterdam is located at the Rhine River’s mouth and is one of the continent’s busiest ports. The country is famous for its Zuider Zee, the sizeable inland region below sea level that has been drained of water and surrounded by an extensive dike protecting it from the North Sea. Reclaiming land from the sea in areas called polders has provided this densely populated country with more land area for its people to expand their activities.
For a small country with few natural resources, the Netherlands has an impressive GDP. The Dutch have made good use of their location on the North Sea and the location of several large navigable rivers. This has facilitated voluminous exports to the interior parts of Europe. The major industries include food processing, chemicals, petroleum refining, and electrical machinery. The Netherlands is a top exporter of agricultural products, which contribute substantially to its economy. Dutch agricultural exports consist of fresh-cut plants, flowers, bulbs, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.
The main languages spoken in the small landlocked country of Luxemburg are French, German, and Luxembourgish. Luxembourg’s major city is Luxembourg City. Luxemburg has an enviable economic situation with a stable and prosperous economy, low unemployment, and low inflation. Thanks to rich iron-ore deposits, this country developed a robust steel industry, which was the cornerstone of the nation’s prosperity until the 1970s. As steel declined, Luxemburg remade itself as an important world financial center. Luxembourg leads Europe as the center for private banking and insurance industries and is second only to the United States to be an investment fund center.
France covers 211,209 square miles and is the second-largest European country; Ukraine is slightly larger in physical size. France’s physical landscapes vary widely from the northern low-lying coastal plains to the east’s Alpine ranges. Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alpine range at 15,782 feet, is located in France near the Italian border. In the far south, the Pyrenees run along the border with Spain. The south-central region of the country is home to the Massif Central, a plateau and highland region made up of a vast stretch of extinct volcanoes.
During the colonial era, France was a significant naval power and held colonies around the world. The French Empire was the second largest at the time. The French language is still used for diplomacy in many countries. Though the French Empire no longer exists, France has progressed into a post-industrial country with one of the world’s most developed economies. It is a significant player in European affairs, the EU, and the United Nations (UN). France is a democratic republic that boasts a high-quality public education system and long life expectancies.
In 2019, France’s population was about 67 million, with about ten million living in France’s Paris primate city. The city of Paris is on an excellent site; it is favorably situated concerning its surrounding area. It is a significant core area of France serving a large peripheral region of the country. The next largest city of Lyon, which is a major high-tech industrial center for Europe’s economy, can only boast a population of about 1.4 million. Even with a large population, the country can produce enough food for its domestic needs and export profits. France leads Europe in agricultural production.
France enjoys a robust economy and is one of the world’s leading industrial producers. Its industrial pursuits are diverse, including planes, trains, automobiles, textiles, telecommunications, food products, pharmaceuticals, construction and civil engineering, chemicals, and mechanical equipment and machine tools. Additionally, defense-related industries make up a significant sector of the economy. France’s production of military weapons is recognized worldwide. The country has been a leader in the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity. Nuclear energy supplies about 80 percent of the country’s electricity, reducing the need for imported oil and other fossil fuels.
Agriculture is an essential sector of the French economy, as it has been for centuries, and is tied to the industry through food processing. Food processing industries employ more people than any other part of the French manufacturing sector. If you think of cheese and wine when you think of France, you have identified two of its largest food processing endeavors, along with sugar beets, meats, and confectionaries. World-renowned wines are produced in abundance, sometimes in areas that bear their names, such as in Burgundy, around the city of Bordeaux, and in Champagne in the Loire Valley. French cuisine and fashion have long been held in the highest esteem worldwide and are a national pride source. Food and wine are essential elements of the French way of life, and each region of France boasts a suite of famous dishes.
Thanks to the climate and favorable soil conditions, agriculture is highly productive and lucrative for France. France is second only to the United States in terms of agricultural exports. Exports mainly go to other EU countries, to the United States, and some countries in Africa. The plains of northern France are excellent for wheat, which is grown on large agricultural operations. Dairy products are a specialty in France’s western regions, producing pork, poultry, and apples. Beef cattle are raised in the central portion, where a cooler, wetter climate provides ample tracts of grasslands for grazing. Fruit, including wine grapes, is grown in the central and southern regions, as are vegetables. The Mediterranean region is blessed with hot, dry weather ideal for growing grapes and other fruits and vegetables.
Germany’s location in Central Europe has meant that throughout history, many peoples—all with their own cultures, ideas, languages, and traditions—have traversed Germany at one time or another. Thus Germany’s culture has received many influences over the centuries.
Germany’s present geopolitical configuration is relatively young, as it reunified the eastern and western portions into a single entity in 1990. Germany was formed in 1871 during the leadership of Otto von Bismarck in an attempt to create a Germanic power base. World War I was fought during the last years of the German Empire. As part of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria), Germany was defeated by the Allies with much loss of life. The German Republic was created in 1918 when, having been defeated in World War I, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1933, with an environment of poverty, disenfranchisement of the people, and significant instability in the government, Germany gave way to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany. Within a month of taking office, Hitler suspended natural rights and freedoms and assumed absolute power. A centralized totalitarian state quickly resulted. In a move to expand Germany, Hitler started to expand its borders. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 kicked off what would become World War II. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and declared war on the United States. After Germany’s defeat, the country was divided into East Germany, controlled by the Soviet Union, and West Germany, controlled by the Allied powers. The Iron Curtain divided the two Germanys, with the Berlin Wall dividing the city of Berlin. The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were major symbols of the Cold War. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and the two Germanys were reunited in 1990. Today, Germany is a vibrant country and an active EU member.
Germany is Europe’s largest economy, with strong exports of manufactured goods. To gain national income, Germany has promoted manufacturing as a significant component of its economy. Most exports are in automobiles, machinery, metals, and chemical goods. Germany has positioned itself strategically to take economic advantage of the growing global awareness of environmental issues and problems by focusing on improvements and manufacturing of wind turbines and solar power technology. The service sector also contributes heavily to the economy. Deutsche Bank holds the enviable position of being one of the most profitable companies on the Fortune 500 list. Germany is also an important tourist destination. The Black Forest, Bavaria, the Alpine south, various medieval castles, national parks, and a vibrant assortment of festivals such as Oktoberfest attract millions of tourists to Germany every year.
German reunification in 1990 posed some challenges for the economy. Notably, the East German infrastructure was far behind that of the West. Telecommunications, and other areas needed to support industry, commerce, transportation, and enormous amounts of money were funneled into the system. While there has been considerable success in the renewal of infrastructure, unemployment in former East Germany is still significantly higher, and the workforce’s necessary retraining is ongoing and expensive.
Language, religion, and education have been strong cultural forces in Germany. German is the official language of the country and the one spoken by most of its people. More than 60 percent of Germans self-identify as Christian, and another 30 percent self-identify as agnostic or atheistic. During the Cold War, East Germany was under a Communist government that promoted a non-religious ideology, resulting in a high percentage of people with agnostic or atheistic beliefs in that part of Germany. Historically, there has been a strong connection between religious reformation and education. The early leaders of the Christian Reformation were generally highly educated themselves and were strong advocates of education, which they viewed as a path to positive moral and social reform. The German tradition of excellence in education continues. Education is provided at no cost (other than taxation) to students at all levels, including the university level, though some universities are now starting to charge very modest amounts for tuition.
The Alpine Center
Landlocked in the center of Europe are the two states of Switzerland and Austria. Sandwiched on the border of these two states is the ministate of Lichtenstein. The Alpine ranges dominate this region. Switzerland, officially known as the Swiss Confederation, is divided into twenty-six cantons (states). Because of its location and close ties with neighboring countries, four languages are spoken in Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Typically, one language predominates in any given canton. Berne is the country’s capital, and Geneva, Zurich, and Basel are the other major cities. As of 2019, Switzerland’s population is roughly 8.5 million. It is a land area that is just slightly larger than the US state of Maryland.
Internationally, Switzerland is well known for its political neutrality. The UN European offices are located there. The Red Cross and the main offices of many international organizations are located in Switzerland. Switzerland joined the UN in 2002 and has applied for EU membership. Swiss culture is thought to have benefited from Switzerland’s neutrality. During times of war and political turmoil, creative people found refuge within the Swiss borders. Swiss banking practices and policies are known worldwide, and Swiss banks have significantly benefited from their politically neutral status. Banking is one of the country’s top employers and sources of income. Swiss people enjoy a high standard of living.
Sports are popular in Switzerland, and football or soccer is popular as it is in much of Europe. Switzerland has also produced excellence in hockey, skiing, and of late, tennis. There is an emphasis on science in Swiss culture with good historical reason: modern chemistry originated in Switzerland. The Bernoulli family, famed for their significant contributions to mathematics over many years, hails from Basel. The Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, one of the world’s top-ranked universities, has produced an unusually high number of Nobel Prize winners. Albert Einstein, though born in Germany, relocated to Switzerland and later became a Swiss citizen.
Austria is larger than its neighbor Switzerland and is similar in area to the US state of South Carolina. In 2019, the population was estimated at 8.7 million. Austria has various Alpine ranges, with the highest peak at 12,457 feet in elevation. Only about a fourth of the land area is considered low lying for habitation. The Danube River flows through the country, including the capital city of Vienna. Austria has a well-developed social market economy and a high standard of living.
For more than six hundred years, beginning just before the dawn of the fourteenth century, Austria was tightly associated with its ruling dynasty, the Habsburgs. The Hapsburgs came to power in a new way with the formation of the Austrian Empire in 1804. In Germany’s rise to power before World War II, Hitler annexed his native Austria to Germany. Austria regained its independence a decade after the war ended and joined the EU in 1995. Austria is a German-speaking country, and nearly the entire population self-identifies as an ethnic Austrian.
Austria is predominantly Roman Catholic and was home to many monasteries in the Middle Ages, influencing a strong Austrian literary tradition. Austria’s best-known cities are its capital of Vienna and Salzburg, and Innsbruck. Vienna was the Habsburg and Austrian Empires center and earned a place as one of the world’s great cities. It is famed for its baroque architecture; its music, particularly waltzes; and theater. The Habsburgs were great patrons of the arts, and hence music, drama, and art thrived for centuries in Austria. The country has been home to many famous composers and musicians and has a worldwide reputation in music and the arts.
The British Isles
The British Isles are an archipelago, a group of islands separated from the English Channel’s European mainland. The British Isles are often included in Western Europe when discussing political geography; however, they are separated from Europe’s mainland by water, providing them with a separate identity. The British Isles consists of two separate, independent countries: the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. The United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. All four regions are now under the UK government. The Republic of Ireland is independent of the United Kingdom and does not include Northern Ireland. The primate city and UK capital is London, which is a financial center for Europe. The capital city of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
Influenced by the Gulf Stream, the British Isles’ climate is moderate, despite its northern latitude location. The UK and Ireland are located above the fiftieth degree of latitude, which is farther north than the US-Canadian border. The northern latitude would typically place this region into the type D climates, with harsher winters and more extreme seasonal temperatures. However, the surrounding water moderates temperature, creating a moderate type C climate covering most of the British Isles. The Gulf Stream pulls warm water from the tropics and circulates it north, off Europe’s coast, to moderate Western Europe’s temperature.
The Western Highlands and the Northern Lowlands dominate the islands. Scotland, Wales, and parts of England have highland regions with small mountains and rugged terrain, whereas the lowlands of southern England, Ireland, and central Scotland offer agricultural opportunities. The Pennines Mountains runs through northern England and was the source of the coal, ores, and waterpower that fueled the Industrial Revolution. To the east of Britain is the North Sea, which provided an abundance of petroleum resources (oil) for energy and wealth.
Though the British Isles’ heritage is unique to this region, the geographic dynamics are similar to Central Europe. They tend to have smaller families, urbanization and industrialization are robust, enjoy high incomes, and are significantly involved with economic globalization. The EU has had an enormous influence on the British Isles. Ireland has embraced EU’s economic connections, but the British people have been hesitant to relinquish full autonomy to the EU. This reluctance can be noted in the fact that the United Kingdom kept the British pound sterling as their currency standard after the euro currency was implemented. However, the Republic of Ireland converted to the euro currency.
The regions of the British Isles follow similar dynamics to those of other countries in Western Europe. Though some regions are not as wealthy as others, they all demonstrate a high industrialization, urbanization, and technology level. These urban societies have smaller families and higher incomes and are heavy consumers of energy, goods, and services. Just as the Industrial Revolution attracted cheap labor, the aging workforce has enticed people from former British colonies to migrate to the United Kingdom in search of increased employment opportunities. The mix of immigrants with local heritage creates a diverse community. London has diverse communities with many ethnic businesses and business owners.
Devolutionary forces are active in the United Kingdom. Scotland and Wales are already governing their local parliaments. Devolutionary cultural differences can be noted by studying the different heritages found in each region. Just as the Welsh language is lingering in Wales, Gaelic continues in Ireland and Scotland. Each region has made efforts to retain local heritage and rally support for its nation-state. However, this is all done with the overall perspective of remaining under the umbrella of the EU.
Home to the Industrial Revolution, major industrial cities such as Manchester and Birmingham brought together the labor, raw materials, and industry connections necessary to manufacture products. The port city of Liverpool gave access to the world markets established by Britain’s extensive colonial empire, and the colonies provided raw materials, new ideas, and cheap labor for the new industrial factories. Great Britain was an avid colonizer and controlled colonies on all inhabited continents. Raw materials such as cotton, which did not grow well in Britain, became a major import fueled by the Industrial Revolution’s textile mills.
Industrialization caused a rural-to-urban shift in Britain. In 1800, only 9 percent of the population lived in urban areas, but by 1900 some 62 percent resided in cities and towns. As of 2019, over 90 percent of Britain’s population is composed of urban dwellers. The British colonial empire also caused a migration pattern whereby people moved from colonies to the home country, with the core area located in northern England’s Midlands. Cheap immigrant labor and resources from the colonies provided the manufacturing enterprises of wealthy British industrialists with good fortunes. Raw cotton was brought in from the colonies of India and Egypt. Cheap labor, brought in from the Caribbean and South Asia, resulted in a more diverse population in industrialized northern England.
As the information age developed, northern England’s industrial centers gave way to a post-industrialized southern England. The north’s heavy industries experienced a decline in demand. Factories closed, production became automated, and unemployment increased. The transition from the Industrial Revolution to a postindustrial society turned northern England into the British Isles’ Rust Belt. The port of Liverpool has been updated with modern and automated systems that do not require the high level of manual labor necessary during earlier industrial times. Rail service connects Liverpool with London, connected to Paris through a tunnel under the English Channel called the Chunnel.
The postindustrial economic activities have shifted the focus of employment away from manual labor to the service sector of information. Many places have looked to tourism to boost their economic situation. Northern England has many attractive physical environments that have been developed into major tourist attractions. The Lake District of northern England is a famous vacation destination, and small mountains and scenic landscapes attracted several of England’s writers. The city of Blackpool on the Irish Sea, just north of Liverpool, is a major vacation destination for the English. The dales and moors of northern England, complemented by the short Pennines, provide a sharp contrast to London and southern England’s urban metropolitan landscapes.
Anchored by London’s primate city, southern England also is home to Oxford and Cambridge’s universities. This is Great Britain’s most affluent region and is a center of postindustrial activity. Located on the Thames River, London is a central player in the world’s financial markets. Southern England also houses about one-third of the UK population. With immigration from the former colonies, this region is also becoming more diverse. This is an urbanized region, where the cost of living, transportation, and housing is high. For example, gasoline in the United Kingdom might cost two or three times more than in the United States. Many urban dwellers do not own automobiles but instead use public transportation.
England is the most populous region of the United Kingdom, with about one thousand people per square mile. About half the population increase is because of immigration. The UK population is aging due to smaller family sizes and a growing number of senior citizens. This trend is common in countries in stage 5 of the index of economic development. Immigrants from many parts of the world have targeted England as their new home. Many are from former British colonies in Asia and Africa. England has a diverse population. Islam is the fastest-growing religion, even though Muslims make up less than 10 percent of the total population. London is even home to a growing Sikh community.
London is the United Kingdom’s primate city and capital; it is the largest administrative municipality in the entire EU. Only Paris has a larger overall metropolitan area. London is a global center that holds prominence in world markets and the globalization process. About one-fifth of Europe’s largest corporations have their headquarters in London. The city’s cultural influence is felt worldwide in the fashion industry, media, entertainment, and the arts. London is an international city that has a powerful draw for tourists. London’s international recognition anchors the core economic region of Europe.
Southern England is also home to Great Britain’s seat of government. The UK government is considered a constitutional monarchy with a king or queen as head of state. The parliament is the official legislative body with a prime minister as head of government. The parliament has two bodies: the House of Commons, whose members are elected, and the House of Lords, whose members are appointed for life. As head of state, the monarch is mainly a figurehead with little actual political power. Several dependencies remain under the British Crown as far as sovereignty is concerned. Small islands such as Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man, and various islands in the Caribbean and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans remain under the British government for administrative, economic, and defense purposes.
A highland region to the west of England, Wales holds a Celtic heritage in which the Welsh language and coal mining stories can still be heard. However, the English language has become more dominant, and tourism has replaced coal mining as the main economic activity. The decline in coal use depressed the economy but did not depress the Welsh people’s culture and heritage – the largest city and capital of Wales in Cardiff. In the early twentieth century, Cardiff’s port handled the largest amount of coal globally and handled more tons of cargo than Liverpool or London. The decline in coal mining has reduced the shipping activity in Cardiff’s port in the twenty-first century.
Devolution is alive and well in Wales. Welsh nationalism prompted the declaration of a separate parliament in the capital of Cardiff. London’s break provided local autonomy, but Wales is still reliant on the United Kingdom in national and foreign affairs. Many of the young people in Wales emigrate to find work because of the depressed economy. Emigration has caused a leveling off of population growth, and the number of people who speak Welsh has diminished. Wales and England share a common Protestant Christian religion. Wales is turning to tourism as a means of economic income; the scenic and picturesque landscape of the highland region, with its many castles, provides a pleasant experience for tourists.
United with England in 1707, Scotland has been integrated into the United Kingdom while keeping its separate heritage and culture. Scotland has strong centripetal forces uniting the Scottish people, including victories over the British by Scottish clans, led by William Wallace in 1297 and Robert the Bruce in 1314; these forces within Scotland have created a devolutionary split with the UK parliament. In the quest to become a nation-state unto itself, in 1997, Scotland received permission to create its parliament to govern local affairs. Though Scotland wants to separate into an independent state, they do not wish to isolate themselves from the EU or greater Europe. This opposite trend, in which local states want autonomy and self-rule yet also want to remain within the broader regional community for economic and national security, is common. The phrase “separate within the Union” is surfacing in Europe with stronger voices. Scotland remains under the British Crown and shares a Protestant Christian heritage with its UK associates.
The Scottish Highlands provide for livestock production, and the central Scottish Lowlands are favorable for agriculture. The North Sea has extensive oil resources. With resources such as these, Scotland can gain wealth and support its small population of about five million people. As an early export product, scotch whiskey has profited many whiskey marketers and has become the most extensive Scotland export product. Scotland benefited and gained wealth during the Industrial Revolution. As a part of an island, early shipbuilding produced ships that brought about trade and development that coincided with European colonialism.
Postindustrial activities have become a focus of the current economy. High-tech computer industries have concentrated in Silicon Glen, an information-age industrial sector between Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, and Edinburgh’s capital. With natural resources and postindustrial opportunities, Scotland is in an excellent position to compete in the global economic community. Scottish banking firms reach around the globe through their investment holdings. Scotland attracts a healthy tourism market with its Highlands and many castles. Kilts and bagpipes are a part of Scottish history and often distinguish themselves as a part of the region’s heritage. The game of golf originated in Scotland and is still popular today.
Northern Ireland is a place in which strong cultural forces often erupt into violence. Officially part of the United Kingdom, this small region with about 1.8 million people has developed a unique set of social problems. Most people consider religious differences to be the main problem in Northern Ireland. People of Irish heritage are predominately Roman Catholic, and those of Scottish and English heritages are usually Protestant Christians. However, it is not so simple. If the troubles (as they are called in the United Kingdom) in Northern Ireland were based solely on religion, we should expect to see similar violence in other regions of the United States or Europe.
The core of the social problems in Northern Ireland is based on political affiliations. Most of the population in the region is not Irish. About 55 percent of the population is of Scottish or English descent, with only about 45 percent of Irish descent. The real problem centers on the governing of Ireland. The Irish would like to see Northern Ireland join with the Republic of Ireland, which received its independence from the British in 1921. The Irish do not want to be under the UK parliament with the Queen of England as head of state. Irish countrymen want total independence from the United Kingdom. The non-Irish population does not want to be a part of the Republic of Ireland and its Irish parliament and would instead remain under the British Crown. The people of Scottish descent would prefer total independence from all outside forces. English people want to remain with the UK parliament.
Though the real problem is political, religion has become the scapegoat. Because cultural differences can be witnessed between Catholics and Protestants, religion has become the two sides’ identifier. They are not necessarily fighting over religious beliefs but rather over political power and control.
The troubles of Northern Ireland have diminished its economic and employment opportunities. Underground paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have heightened tensions between the two groups for decades, with car bombings and other terrorist acts. Hope might lie with a generational change in the population. As the younger generation seeks more opportunities and advantages, the issues that separate the two sides could diminish. Over the years, the hatred built up can be eased with each new generation if centripetal forces work to bridge the differences and unite the social fabric. If the killing and hatred are passed down to successive generations, it will only take longer to recover.
In 1998, after a series of terrorist acts that were condemned on all sides, a movement took place to create the Northern Ireland Assembly with both sides of the division. Obstacles continue to surface to disrupt this calming process, but there is hope that in the future, solutions such as this assembly can work toward producing a lasting peace. The devolutionary forces active in Wales and Scotland may act to create a more separate Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly was only one step. Progress in Northern Ireland is an uphill battle with high unemployment, a weak resource base, and few economic opportunities. Only by working together will Northern Ireland become a stable, peaceful part of the British Isles.
The Republic of Ireland
The whole island of Ireland was under the control of the British Crown for centuries. In 1921 independence was gained from the British for all but Northern Ireland. This bitterly fought conflict has become well entrenched in Irish culture and literature. As an independent country separate from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland has ascended the economic ladder to become a global economic community. Because the climate is type C, there is adequate rainfall for crops and vegetation, and the green landscape gives it the title, “The Emerald Isle.” The island has few other natural resources. There are trees but no vast forest reserves for commercial exploitation. Peat, an early version of coal, is cut from the bogs and burned as fuel.
Ireland is not a vast country. It is just a bit larger than the US state of West Virginia, with a population of about four million. There are no tall mountain ranges in Ireland. The soils are traditionally rocky with few nutrients. Before colonial times, the traditional food crops included such turnips and rutabagas. When the potato was imported from the Americas, it was well-received in Ireland. The potato plant grew well and replaced traditional root crops as the primary food source.
In the early 1800s, the population of the whole of Ireland (including what is now Northern Ireland) was as high as eight million. Starting in the 1840s, blight and rot destroyed much of the potato crop year after year, causing a severe famine in Ireland. More than a million people died, and another two million people left the island. The potato famine caused losses reminiscent of the Black Death, which had ravaged Europe centuries earlier. Black Death’s history may have led to the term Black Irish, which referred to people who fled Ireland during the potato famine and immigrated to the United States. They were often regarded as lower-class citizens and were discriminated against. Well-established Irish families had immigrated to the United States before the 1840s were not considered Black Irish and assimilated into mainstream American society more quickly.
The lack of natural resources and the lack of opportunities and advantages held back the Republic of Ireland from developing a strong economy. It was not until the 1990s that conditions improved. With the EU’s creation and communication advancements, Ireland became an ideal location for expanding North American corporations. The attractive elements included a mild climate, a similar English language, an educated workforce, and a low living cost. Many high-tech computer firms, communication companies, and electronic industries established their operations base in Ireland – Dublin in particular. Because Ireland was a member of the EU, it was a convenient intermediary location between the United States and the European mainland. Business boomed in the 1990s, and incomes and the cost of living rose. Tourism also has become a growing sector of the economy. The economic growth in Ireland earned it the title Celtic Tiger to indicate its growing economic power.
However, the rapidly expanding economic conditions of the 1990s have not extended into the twenty-first century. Since 2007, the global depression has taken its toll on the Irish economy. Starting in 2008, the country witnessed a sharp increase in unemployment that coincided with serious banking scandals. Various banks have been targeted for bailout funds from the government, and the economy witnessed a sharp decline. Property values have plummeted, and protesters have staged demonstrations in the streets demanding the government address the economic situation. Tourism has taken up some of the slack and has expanded by highlighting the Emerald Isle’s mild climate and green countryside. Cities such as Dublin are working with the growing pains of recovery in the economic recession.
Unemployment remains a concern, as well as declining economic opportunities. Overall, Ireland is working to reposition itself for future economic growth. The country wants to maintain itself as a vital link in the EU’s relationship with the United States. Ireland is bracing itself for a sluggish economic road ahead.