Western Europe is the region comprising the westerly countries of Europe. While the term has a geographic context, another main definition developed during the Cold War (approx. 1945-1991) to describe the countries associated with the Western European Union (1954–2011; now part of the European Union (EU)), a defensive alliance drafted in 1948 among non-communist European nations during the Cold War, as opposed to the countries of the Eastern Bloc (or Warsaw Pact). Countries culturally and geographically associated with other European regions that steered clear of Soviet influence during the Cold War are usually included, while western members of the former Eastern Bloc (with the exception of Eastern Germany) are excluded.
Countries described as Western European are invariably high-income developed countries, characterized by democratic political systems, mixed economies combining the free market with aspects of the welfare state, and most are members of NATO and the EU.
The United Nations (UN) Statistics Division considers Western Europe to consist of just nine countries, although the United Nations Regional Groups include European countries from the UN-designated Northern and Southern Europe in its Western European and Others Group.
Classical antiquity and medieval origins
As Roman domain expanded, a cultural and linguistic division appeared between the mainly Greek-speaking eastern provinces which had formed the highly urbanized Hellenistic civilization. In contrast, the western territories largely adopted the Latin language. This cultural and linguistic division was eventually reinforced by the later political east-west division of the Roman Empire.
The division between these two was enhanced during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by a number of events. The Western Roman Empire collapsed starting the Early Middle Ages. By contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire, mostly known as the Greek or Byzantine Empire, managed to survive and even to thrive for another 1000 years. The rise of the Frankish Empire in the west, and in particular the Great Schism that formally divided Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, enhanced the cultural and religious distinctiveness between Eastern and Western Europe.
The conquest of the Byzantine Empire, center of the Eastern Orthodox Church, by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, and the gradual fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire (which had replaced the Frankish Empire) led to a change of the importance of Roman Catholic/Protestant vs. Eastern Orthodox concept in Europe.
Western Europe's significant historical events include the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther and the Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church, the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
During the final stages of World War II the future of Europe was decided between the Allies in the 1945 Yalta Conference, between the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Premier of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin.
Post-war Europe would be divided into two major spheres: the West, influenced by the United States, and the Eastern Bloc, influenced by the Soviet Union. With the onset of the Cold War, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain.
This term had been used during World War II by German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and later Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk in the last days of the war; however, its use was hugely popularised by Winston Churchill, who used it in his famous "Sinews of Peace" address March 5, 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.
Although some countries were officially neutral, they were classified according to the nature of their political and economical systems. This division has largely defined the popular perception and understanding of Western Europe and its borders with Eastern Europe till this day.
Modern political developments
The world changed dramatically with the fall of the "Iron Curtain" in 1989. The Federal Republic of Germany peacefully absorbed the German Democratic Republic, leading to the German reunification. COMECON and the Warsaw Pact were dissolved, and in 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Several countries which had been part of the Soviet Union regained their full independence.
Although the term Western Europe was largely a term of the Cold War, it still remains much in use. The term is commonly used in the media and in everyday use both in "western" and other regions of Europe.
The United Nations Statistics Division published in 2011 considers Western Europe to consist of the following nine countries, except in the case of United Nations Regional Groups, in which the term also includes northern and southern Europe:
According to the UN Statistics Division, the assignment of countries or areas to specific groupings is for statistical convenience and does not imply any assumption regarding political or other affiliation of countries or territories by the United Nations.
Population of Western Europe
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- ^ "Composition of macro geographical (continental) regions, geographical sub-regions, and selected economic and other groupings". United Nations Statistics Division. 2011-09-20. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/methods/m49/m49regin.htm#europe. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
- ^ "Standard Country and Area Codes Classifications (M49)". United Nations Statistics Division. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/methods/m49/m49.htm. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
- ^ "EUROPE, GEOGRAPHICAL AND POLITICAL - National Geographic Style Manual". Stylemanual.ngs.org. 1993-11-01. http://stylemanual.ngs.org/home/E/europe-geographical-and-political. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
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