“Europe” is a fuzzy term. Unlike “Australia” or “Canada,” the area it denotes has no obvious limits (EU, single market, continent), so its definition remains unfixed. This uncertainty is a problem and an advantage, for it creates a dynamic; the policies of Europe’s nations determine the geography of the whole. A particular policy implies particular limits: Who should be in the eurozone? What will happen after Brexit? Where should migration be controlled? A particular limit such as continuous expansion or differentiation implies a particular configuration: a union of states and peoples, or a federation of nation states.
Geographically, Europe is defined by the Ural Mountains and river to the east, the Aras River to the southeast, and the Strait of Gibraltar and the Bosphorus to the south. These limits, established in popular consciousness, come from decisions taken in specific historical circumstances. Without Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s resistance in Thrace, the Bosphorus would also be a geopolitical limit. If Sebastian I of Portugal had won the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578, Europe’s southern border would not be the Strait of Gibraltar but somewhere between the southern Rif and Rabat.
The Urals have never been and will never be an international border. Peter the Great’s geographer Vasily Tatishchev devised this limit to bring Muscovy out of Asia and justify driving the Turks and Tatars back beyond the Volga. For Russians, Asia begins east of Lake Baikal. The Urals are a cartographic convention: In adopting them as a border, Russia, though a Eurasian configuration, was calling itself a European power. In 1962, De Gaulle proposed building “a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” to show the Soviet Union that the rapprochement between France and Germany was not a cold-war maneuver to exclude countries outside the common market, but added: “For this Europe to be possible, there must be great changes. First, the Soviet Union must no longer be what it is, but Russia.”
In Transcaucasia, under Persian and Turkish influence for centuries, the Aras River only became a southern border, replacing the Caucasus Mountains and later the Kura Valley, after Russian interventions south of the Caucasus against a weakened Persian empire. The river was a political border between Russia and Persia, which Georgian and Armenian geographers presented as the limits of Europe.
A double network of relations
Historically, Europe can be defined as a millenary civilization built on Roman law and Christianity. Philosopher Marc Crépon says it is founded on a double network of relations: those “that European nations have maintained with other nations (trade, imports, translations) but also those that ‘Europeans’ have built with the things they have dreamed, imagined or made up as Other.” An absence of clear natural limits led Europe to define itself in terms of differences from its neighbors—the warlike Muslims of the Arab-Berber kingdoms, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was traumatic: Pope Pius II was the first to tell the quarrelsome Christian princes that they must think like Europeans (europeicos) if they aimed to drive back the Turks.