Europe – contrary to the European Union, the Council of Europe or individual European countries – is not a legal entity; it’s just an idea. And not a very clear one at that. The vagueness here isn’t limited to concepts such as the “European identity”, the “European culture” or the “European people” (what is the most defining characteristic of Europe: Christianity, humanism, economics or liberty/equality/fraternity?). Even the geographic extent of the “continent” is disputed and changes over time. The geographical uncertainty is in part the consequence of the conceptual uncertainty, although there are also some purely geographical reasons why it’s difficult to say where exactly Europe is. Changes in the geographical meaning of Europe sometimes follow from conceptual changes, as I will make clear below. I will also argue that this has some relevance for human rights.
But before that, a bit of history. Europe is not like Africa or America. It doesn’t have a nice clean shape with natural borders. The northern, western and southern borders are pretty evident since those are formed by the coastlines of the Arctic Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea respectively. But there has always been and there continues to be fervent disagreement about the eastern border. Some use geographical facts, such as the Ural mountains, the Black Sea and the Dardanelles (or Hellespont) in order to say where Europe stops in the east. That would result in the exclusion of Turkey – or most of Turkey.
However, these geographical facts are hardly determinant, or at least not as determinant as the geographical facts that determine the other three borders. They often have an arbitrary ring to them. Which is why discussions about the eastern border are really about non-geographical facts even if they are ostensibly about geographical ones. They are about identity, culture and religion. The elusive concept of a European cultural identity is central to determining the geographical concept of Europe: can Muslims be Europeans? Or only Christians? Or is religion irrelevant? Answers to these questions will determine the geography.
(Of course, generally speaking it’s quite correct to say that geographical issues may be independently determinant in discussions about the composition of continents: it’s unlikely that a continent includes a land area thousands of miles away from the main land area of the continent and separated from it by countries belonging to another continent; e.g. South Africa will never be European, even if a large segment of its population is culturally European, whatever that means. In the case of the eastern border of Europe, however, geography cannot be determinant).
Those who focus on identity, religion and culture to determine the nature of Europe often use the history of geography as a means to exclude Muslim countries in general and Turkey in particular. They can do so because historically, the word “Europe” had a very limited meaning:
Europe was merely that bit of land on the continent that the Persians had to cross to get from the Hellespont to Greece proper. (source)
This is the Hellespont:
That the area above the Hellespont was originally called “Europe” can still be seen from this Roman map:
Extrapolating from this historical fact, one can argue that Europe stops at the mainland of Turkey – Istanbul and everything north of the Hellespont is then still European, the rest of Turkey is not. And one can also argue that those “European” areas of Turkey – often called Thrace although Thrace was originally smaller than that – aren’t really Muslim anyway, since Istanbul was once Constantinople and as such a center of Christianity.
However, it’s just as easy to use the same historical reference in order to argue that Turkey does, historically, belong to Europe: if the “original” Europe was in Turkey, why shouldn’t Turkey be in today’s Europe? Again, geography by itself does not determine the nature and extent of Europe.
The more northern part of the eastern border is less controversial than the southern part – at least it is now. Most do now agree that the Ural mountains are a nice and convenient natural border. There aren’t any cultural or religious issues in play here. In other words, there aren’t any Muslims there we need to keep out. The only problem that had to be solved is Russia: difficult to exclude completely from Europe – they are Christian after all – but equally difficult to include entirely. If you include it entirely, then why not also Mongolia, Alaska and some of the old Soviet republics? So people have come to accept the more or less arbitrary geographical cut in the middle of Russia. However, this decision followed centuries of uncertainty and movement, as you can see from this map:
Some continue to dispute even this. The Ural doesn’t neatly cut Russia in two: what about the areas above and below the Ural? And why the Caucasus?
The conclusion of all this is that discussions about the geographical extent of Europe – and therefore also discussions about the nature of Europe – are difficult and far from settled. As a result, there’s a wide variety of views. Some claim that Europe is the collection of the countries that cover the relatively small area of that curvy western peninsula of the larger Asian continent that starts at the Atlantic Ocean and stops at the border of Turkey, or perhaps even at the borders of the Balkan countries (some of which are Muslim as well). Others see Europe as a giant continent spanning the globe from Iceland on one side – Iceland being geographically closer to America than to the European mainland – to the Bering Strait, close to Alaska, on the other side. Some include the UK, others do not. Etc. The maximalist view would include some 50 countries in Europe, including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Why mention all of this under the heading of “human rights maps”? Questions such as “what is Europe?”, “where is Europe?”, “how far does Europe reach?” and “which countries belong to Europe?” have a cultural and historical significance, but they can also have an impact on human rights. For example, if Europeans – whoever they are – agree that a country is inside Europe, then it can become a member of the European Union (if also certain other conditions are fulfilled). This membership offers a lot of advantages to the citizens of member countries and many of these advantages mean better protection for certain rights: freedom of movement, easier reunion with family members already living in a “European” country, looser visa restrictions for traveling to certain countries outside of the European Union, the advantages of free trade, subsidies, bailouts etc. Membership of the Council of Europe is also reserved to “European” countries, and this membership offers citizens access to the European Court of Human Rights, the most powerful international court for the protection of human rights. I’m sure many Turkish citizens are eager to profit from being accepted as Europeans, as do the citizens of other countries that may or may not be European.
So the question about the definition of Europe is an important one. Below are some bonus maps illustrating the uncertainty about the extent of Europe. This one seems to suggest that certain parts of the Middle East belong to Europe (the Judeo-Christian parts):
(source, click image to enlarge)
And this one omits Greece and the other territories occupied by the Ottoman empire:
(source, click image to enlarge)
When the Turks controlled large parts of the Balkans, those areas were considered to be beyond Europe, the eastern edge of which was the border between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. (source)
More human rights maps are here.