Europe’s Natural Borders

With the EU referendum barely a month away, my attention is being drawn more and more to Europe and all things European.

The question we are being asked is: Do you want to be a sovereign nation state (Leave), or would you prefer to be part of the larger political entity of the European Union (Remain)?

This morning I began wondering if sovereign nation states might just be fictions, created by arbitrarily drawing lines on maps. Erase the lines, and you erase the nations?

Even the UK consists of lines on maps. There’s a line across the north of England which demarcates Scotland from England, and another one down the west of England the demarcates Wales from England. And within England there are lots of lines demarcating one county from the next. Haven’t those lines already been more or less erased to create the larger political entity of Great Britain? Isn’t the European process of border erasure simply the extension of one that has been under way within Britain for many centuries?

But then there are arguably some real and ineradicable distinctions between England, Scotland, and Wales. Apart from its central spine of the Pennine hills, England is largely either flat or gently rolling farmland. But Scotland is a mountainous country, and gets more mountainous the further north you go. And so also is Wales (although much less than Scotland). The Scots are highlanders and islanders. And the Welsh are hill people. And of course Ireland is separated from Britain by an entire sea. Is it very surprising that the peoples of these different places should be culturally distinct too?

Do such natural divisions occur in Europe? The answer is: very much they do. I got hold of a Google terrain map of Europe, and highlighted its mountains (red) and 4 of its largest rivers (blue). In the absence of boats or bridges, large rivers pose considerable obstacles.


Apart from being separated from Ireland by sea, Britain is separated from the European continent by another sea. And within Europe, Spain is almost an island, separated by the Pyrenees mountains from the continent. Italy is almost an island as well, separated from the continent by the arc of the Alps. And Greece is also almost an island, and indeed consists of many islands as well. So also Denmark.

And France is separated from Spain by the Pyrenees, from Italy by the Alps, and from Germany by the river Rhine. The old northern border of the Roman empire ran roughly along the line of the Rhine and the Danube. Germany lies roughly between the Rhine in the west, the river Danube or Alps in the South, and the river Elbe in the east, and the North sea in the north. And Holland is the country of the Rhine delta. And Poland lies roughly between the Elbe in the west, the Vistula in the east, the Baltic sea in the north, and the Carpathians in the south.

Switzerland is surrounded by a girdle of Alpine mountains. The Czech republic is also surrounded by a girdle of Carpathian mountains. Austria is a mountain country squeezed between the Carpathians and the Alps. Slovakia is a mountain country. Hungary lies in the Danube plain between the Carpathians and Balkan extension of the Alps. As do Serbia and Bulgaria.

And what’s the difference between Norway and Sweden? Norway is almost entirely mountainous, while Sweden is relatively flat.

Some countries aren’t quite explicable in these terms. There’s no obvious reason why Portugal should be separate from Spain. Or why Belgium should exist at all. Or why the Carpathian mountains run right through the middle of Romania. Or why the Danube flows through the middle of Hungary. Nor is it at all clear why there should be a string of small countries running from Slovenia, through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia, along the Balkan mountain range.

In the south and west of Europe, it would seem that nation states have been been the most stable historically. But in eastern Europe, they’ve been resized and reshaped, and sometimes moved bodily. Western Europe has been politically stable for a long time, Eastern Europe much less so. It has been from the east that Huns and Goths and Vandals and Mongols have swept across Europe.

And wherever a little protected pond of people have collected between rivers and mountains, it seems that a distinct culture has always arisen, and a distinct language. So Spanish in Spain, French in France, Dutch in Holland, German in Germany, Italian in Italy, Greek in Greece. So why isn’t there a Swiss language (They’ve got three: German, French, and Italian)? Or an Austrian language (it’s principally German)?

In fact the Spanish language is the nearest language to the Latin language (that I once studied). It’s an import from ancient Rome, and it truer to Latin than contemporary Italian (in my opinion).

The seats of European civilisation are probably found in Greece and Rome because they were relatively safe from invasion. High mountains would seem to be the best natural defence against invaders. And if not high mountains, then the very widest rivers. And so in Greece and Rome high cultures could develop. And later in France and England, because these also were naturally stable political entities.

If Europe is a politically very complex area, it may in large part be because its physical geography is very complex. And nowhere is more geographically complex – and politically complex – than the Balkan region.

So it seems possible to rediscover many of Europe’s nation states simply by looking for natural physical boundaries created by seas, rivers, and mountains. Their borders are not arbitrary lines on maps.

And it may also be possible to rediscover Britain’s counties simply by looking for similar natural physical boundaries. If England is now a single political entity, it may simply be because its natural internal borders, in the form of small rivers and and low hills, have all long been suppressed by roads and bridges and tunnels.

And if modern Europe is much more of a single political entity than it was a few hundred years ago, it’s because all the rivers have been bridged, and many of the mountains have tunnels through them (about 100 tunnels in the Alps, and one in the Pyrenees). There’s even a tunnel under the Channel between England and France. It’s much easier now to travel across Europe than ever before. And this tends to dissolve the historical, natural, physical borders between states, making for a much easier flow of goods and people and culture.

Nevertheless, there remain large cultural differences across Europe. Even in a country like Britain, there are considerable cultural differences between north and south, town and country.

About Frank Davis

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31 Responses to Europe’s Natural Borders

  1. “Or why Belgium should exist at all.” I wondered, it’s for the chocolate and the beer…

  2. Cecily Collingridge says:

    A thousand years of European borders:

  3. Harleyrider1978 says:

    Hitler erased borders too made them territories yet original boundaries took presidence in the end. What we are seeing is the rebirth of national pride in country again the one biggest thing the leftists hate for they blame world war on national patriotism!

    Hense why they wanted a league then the UN then mayo then the Europhile zone etc etc

  4. Joe L. says:

    OT: Healthists beware! Recommended fat and cholesterol intakes have been revisited recently. Now it’s salt’s turn.

    A controversial new study contends that a low-salt diet could be dangerous for your heart health.
    Restricting dietary salt to below 3,000 milligrams a day appears to increase the risk for heart disease similar to that of high blood pressure patients who eat too much salt, said lead researcher Andrew Mente.
    “Having neither too high nor too low levels of sodium [salt] is optimal for health,” said Mente, an associate professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada.

    Could a Low-Salt Diet Hurt Your Health?

    It’s going to be a while until we see new research happen like this with tobacco due to the stigma they’ve been able to conjure, but with more studies like this questioning the status quo of “health,” I believe it’s only a matter of time.

    • junican says:

      The human body excretes surplus salt. But it is reasonable to say that really excessive intake of salt would overwhelm the ability of a human body to excrete the excess. But, also, every human being is different.
      What it comes down to is that it is not possible to describe a perfect level of salt intake. Better to take a bit more than necessary than to take a bit less, as an individual.

      I think that most of us are sick to death of academics and ‘Chief Medical Officers’. Such people are dangerous.

      • Rose says:

        A little trick I discovered, sprinkle a tiny amount of salt in your hand and taste it with the tip of your tongue, it tastes delicious, do it again and it tastes horrible. I don’t eat much salt and rarely use it in cooking for no particular reason. I can only assume that I am salt deficient so the first taste is wonderful and for the second my brain tells me I’ve had enough. I’ve tried it on other people in hot weather with the same result.

        I prefer unsalted butter and gave up crisps in the 70’s because they tasted too salty to me. If most people work the same as me, perhaps we don’t need any official advice on salt.

        • harleyrider1978 says:

          Its funny miss rose but a persons body has a way of telling it if it needs salt like most all animals do.

    • prog says:

      Latest re diet fiasco.

      Apparently, It’s all the fault of the evil food industry that paid ‘experts’ to recommend low fat diets.

      ‘The authors of the report also argue that the science of food has also been “corrupted by commercial influences”.

      Just as big tobacco companies bought the “loyalty of scientists” when a link was made between smoking and lung cancer, the influence of the food industry represents a “significant threat to public health”, they argued. They said the recent Eatwell Guide from Public Health England (PHE) was produced with a large number of people from the food and drink industry.’

      • prog says:

        The comparison to tobacco companies was rather predictable. But there’s a far more relevant example of PH incompetence, gullibility and collusion – how Big Pharma convinced it that NRT was highly effective, thus really kicking off the industry sponsorship of anything designed to encourage smokers to quit.

      • Rose says:

        It’s delightful in a warped way, I have been laughing all morning, but it didn’t start with the food industry, it started with Ancel Keyes and his bent study after he got the idea that fat causes heart attacks after a russian fed fat to rabbits and the gullible health officials who accepted it. Saner voices were silenced in the usual way.

        There seem to have been quite a few very influential rogue scientists around the 50’s trying to shake things up a bit, I wonder how many more mad theories there are to weed out.

        “In the introduction of his 1960 paper Dahl defines his position, namely that salt is deleterious. Salt is compared with fall-out, carcinogens and atherogenic factors, and later in the paper with tobacco, alcohol, and fat”


        One segment of the public health community—funded by the the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and endorsed by many journals in the field has decided that salt is a public health menace.

        Therefore, salt consumption must be drastically curtailed. The force with which this conclusion is presented to the public is not in any reasonable balance with the strength of the evidence.
        Programs, once in place, develop a life of their own; the possibility of health benefits becomes probability, and probability becomes certainty. After all, the public is easily confused by complications,
        only professionals can weigh the evidence, and where is the harm in salt

        The harm is to public discourse. The appearance of scientific unanimity is a powerful political tool, especially when the evidence is weak.
        Dissent becomes a threat, which must be marginalized. If funding agencies and journals are unwilling to brook opposition, rational discussion is curtailed.
        There soon comes about the pretense of national policy based on scientific inquiry without the substance. In our view, salt is only one example of this phenomenon.”

        Click to access 573.pdf

  5. Andy Oakley says:

    Europe’s natural borders and cultures are surely everything to do with who got killed and why some didn’t get killed throughout history.

  6. Not on Europe – but people who drink lots of water, need more salt. Nowadays, MANY people drink too much water. I know a young woman, brainwashed about drinking water, who takes her bottle of water (bought) into the pool when we swim.

    • Joe L. says:

      I know a young woman, brainwashed about drinking water, who takes her bottle of water (bought) into the pool when we swim.

      I’ve also seen people who inconveniently carry around a fucking gallon-sized jug with them at all times, including the winter. Yet we smokers are the ones labeled “addicts.”

  7. garyk30 says:

    European Union and the Soviet Union seem to have the same conceptual foundation.

    One was held together thru force of arms and the other thru economic threats(money).

    Both suffer the same faults of central planning and one size fits all economies.

    It is only a matter of time before the EU suffers the same fate as the Soviet Union.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      And the FCTC actually threatened the loss of world bank and IMF loans if countries didn’t sign on! Today that threats not much since both have said they cant bail anyone out again!

  8. castello2 says:

    Check this out. Quite interesting but teens will be teens. Is it believable?

  9. Tony says:

    Hi Frank,

    This comment really belongs on your post of yesterday.

    The book ‘Murder a Cigarette’ by Ralph Harris and Judith Hatton was mentioned. The full text of chapter 4 of that book used to be available on That chapter is Judith Hatton’s account of the scientific evidence about smoking. Very good it is too.

    I’ve tried searching the website today but can no longer find it. I do have a copy of the page though. (I also have the full book in paper form).

    I suspect there may not be very many second hand copies of the book available via Amazon. But if you wanted to host chapter 4, I could email you a copy of it.

  10. Clicky says:

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      Im hoping this and herman cain backing trump and trump fighting the ban in AC and jersey means he will be on our side if he wins.

      His grandfather handed him a Marlboro and a brass Zippo lighter when he was 9.

      Robert Swope has been smoking ever since. And the freshman Metro councilman doesn’t apologize for it.

      In fact, when the vote came up last week to ban all smoking at Ascend Amphitheater, Swope had to work hard to get his “no” vote on record.

      The vice mayor called for a voice vote, and the clerk apparently didn’t hear Swope’s sole “nay.” A unanimous vote was recorded. After the session ended, Swope ran down the vice mayor to make sure his no vote made it into the record.

      “There was no gain for me to do that at all,” said Swope, 50, a TV production executive who represents the Brentwood area.

      “Except for the fact that I’ve been a smoker for 40 years and honest to God, I’m tired of my rights being infringed upon and being treated like a third-class citizen.”

      Swope says he’s confused.

      “While every state in the country is trying to legalize marijuana, we’re trying to ban Marlboros. I don’t get it.”

      Really? You don’t get it?

      “OK, I get it. I just happen to completely disagree with it. I happen to like smaller government, not bigger.”

      Robert Swope, right, a TV company exec and Metro Councilman, is the only council member who voted for smoking at Ascend Amphitheater last week. Swope appears here in a 2007 picture with gospel singer/TV personality Bobby Jones. (Photo: David Scenk)

      Swope says 25 percent of adults still smoke daily. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s slightly less, about 17 percent in 2014.

      Still, Swope says it’s not a tiny segment of the population. And he thinks the number is much higher.

      “I guarantee you it’s twice that big for social smokers and everyone else. They just don’t want to claim smoking because it’ll increase their health insurance.”

      Swope was the only one to vote against a smoking ban at the amphitheater (which goes into effect July 1) but he says he’s not the only one on Metro Council who smokes.

      “There are four or five of us on Council who smoke. And no, I’m not gonna tell you who they are.”

      They hung you out to dry on that vote!

      “You know what,” Swope said, “I’ve been hung out to dry before.”

  11. harleyrider1978 says:

  12. harleyrider1978 says:
  13. harleyrider1978 says:

    Euro-court outlaws criticism of EU

    By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Brussels

    12:00AM GMT 07 Mar 2001

    THE European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the European Union can lawfully suppress political criticism of its institutions and of leading figures, sweeping aside English Common Law and 50 years of European precedents on civil liberties.

    The EU’s top court found that the European Commission was entitled to sack Bernard Connolly, a British economist dismissed in 1995 for writing a critique of European monetary integration entitled The Rotten Heart of Europe.

    The ruling stated that the commission could restrict dissent in order to “protect the rights of others” and punish individuals who “damaged the institution’s image and reputation”. The case has wider implications for free speech that could extend to EU citizens who do not work for the Brussels bureaucracy.

    The court called the Connolly book “aggressive, derogatory and insulting”, taking particular umbrage at the author’s suggestion that Economic and Monetary Union was a threat to democracy, freedom and “ultimately peace”.

    However, it dropped an argument put forward three months ago by the advocate-general, Damaso Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer, which implied that Mr Connolly’s criticism of the EU was akin to extreme blasphemy, and therefore not protected speech.

    Related Articles

    Mr Connolly, who has been told to pay the European Commission’s legal costs, said the proceedings did not amount to a fair hearing. He said: “We’re back to the Star Chamber and Acts of Attainder: the rights of defendants are not respected or guaranteed in any way; the offence of seditious libel has been resurrected.”

    Mr Colomer wrote in his opinion last November that a landmark British case on free speech had “no foundation or relevance” in European law, suggesting that the European Court was unwilling to give much consideration to British legal tradition.

    Mr Connolly now intends to take his case to Europe’s other court, the non-EU European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

  14. The Blocked Dwarf says:

    In fact the Spanish language is the nearest language to the Latin language
    I thought that Romanian was pretty much the Latinist (hence the name) ?

    • Frank Davis says:

      Oddly enough, I was watching a documentary about Romania last night, and it Romanian didn’t sound in the least bit like Latin. But Spanish does.

      But the landlady of one of my local pubs is Romanian, and she might know.

      • roobeedoo2 says:

        It was called the Kingdom of Dacia before the Emperor Trajan wiped the name from the map. There’s a column in Rome depicting his great victory. It’s absolutely brutal.

  15. jaxthefirst says:

    I’ve often wondered why, within Europe, Britain has always been a bit of a black sheep. It’s never quite “fit” with the rest of Europe in the way that, say France or Spain or Germany do. Not that they don’t have their own separate cultures and ways of life, because of course they do, but they seem to be much more flexible and open in many ways than Britain is. And it occurs to me that much of this stems from the very fact that we are an island, and have been an island for several thousand years.

    It’s often said that “island races” are fiercely independent, rather isolationist types, and that the smaller the island, the more independent and suspicious of “outsiders” they are. I’d guess that the amount of water between them and the nearest “mainland” would also exacerbate this. And I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that, as an island, one’s boundaries are absolutely and totally fixed by the sea, so that in times of trouble an island’s population is very much reliant on its own resources and its own people to get itself out of its difficulties. The population of an island, for example (prior to modern transport) simply couldn’t up sticks and move elsewhere if a major famine struck, or the climate changed radically, or if there was any other widespread natural disaster. And it’s this “alone-ness” which leads to a tremendous sense of independence amongst its people at a very deep subconscious level. People could move from one bit of the island to another, of course, but the smaller the island, the less this would be possible, and thus the increase in the sense of fiery independence in very small island races.

    And island’s isolation would also lead to a very strong sense of community for the same reasons. In times of trouble it would be absolutely imperative that people worked together and helped each other in order for the whole community to survive, and this would lead to a strong sense that the inhabitants basically didn’t need to ask anyone else for help or assistance of a safe place of refuge. It would also make the people very tough and resourceful and, probably, very proud of the way they’d coped with whatever life had thrown at them down through the century and survived. And these things would lead to an extraordinarily strong sense of shared culture and values. I suspect that the strong British sense of fair play stemmed from these ancient times – they’d learned from bitter experience that if certain individuals were greedy, or lazy, or dishonest, then basically the whole community was left vulnerable (including, of course, the greedy, lazy and dishonest ones), and so “share and share alike” was the most sensible way of living to ensure that everyone was broadly looked after and no-one starved to death. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was this little island in north-west Europe which spawned a justice system which is now emulated in all the most advanced civilisations in the world. On an island, justice really is that important.

    On a larger landmass, of course, these things are important, but much less so than on an island. If the harvest fails for several years, or the rains don’t come, or some terrible disease strikes, then if you are living on a very large area of dry land you always have the option of saying to your local community or your local village: “That’s it. We’ve had enough. We’re off.” and of packing all your goods onto a cart, or a donkey, or a mule and taking your family elsewhere, where things aren’t quite so hard. On an island, unless you are lucky enough to have a boat big enough to sail a very long distance, you’re thrown back on your own resources and you have to learn to cope.

    Ditto invasion by foreign forces. Without clear land boundaries, there will always be disputes over territory by warring tribes, but once these have been settled (or won), then the invaders are free to settle in their newly-conquered lands and call them their own, and set new boundaries. Which is why the borders of all the major European countries have morphed and changed over the years. Not so the borders of Britain (or any other island state). Britain’s borders have always been very clearly demarcated by the surrounding sea, so that even if an invading force does come here and defeat the native people (as has happened on several occasions), it isn’t really possible for them to re-write history and pretend that this island has “always” been part of their territory, or “used to be” part of their territory, and that they are just “re-claiming” it, because the sea surrounding us will always be there as a constant reminder of the lands that used to be ours, and have been taken over by a foreign power who were never here before they sailed across it to get here. Like all island populations, I think that our (often mocked) suspicions about “Johnny Foreigner” stems from this inability to forget, over time, where “our” lands used to be.

    In a funny sort of way, also, living on an island means that you are more open to contact with the outside world, because it’s only through contact with those from overseas that you can get hold of goods that just aren’t available to you on your own land, and, as resourceful people, you can see that trading links with people from overseas offers improvements in resources and quality of life that wouldn’t be available if you simply kept yourself to yourself and refused to have contact with anyone else. Again, there’s a deep psychological awareness there that to progress, we must deal with outsiders. Which is why I think the EU was “sold” to us initially (and dishonestly) as a trading agreement. The politicians who took us into the EEC (yes, Heath, I’m looking at you), damned well knew that we wouldn’t object to a trade-based agreement, but they knew full well that if the true political, ruling ambitions of the EU were revealed to us from the outset, there’d have been hell to pay, and in all likelihood, the result of in/out referendum in the 1970s would have been very different. So they simply didn’t tell us. And, as an island nation, used to the culture of “share and share alike” being adhered to by all from the very powerful to the very weakest in society, we trusted them. Why would we not? How could we have known, back then, that some in society had long forgotten about the necessity for trust and fairness towards all and had, in a modern society, adopted a much more selfish and self-serving approach to life?

    And I think that that’s one of the reasons why the UK has never really been comfortable with the whole concept of the European Union. Because although, geologically speaking, we are part of the same landmass, from a human perspective we have been a distinct, separate society for so long. I don’t think that many of our continental cousins can quite get their heads around this, because their human history is so different from ours, and so they don’t have the same deep concept of “fixed borders.” To them, they think we’re just “difficult” and “awkward” and don’t understand why the idea of “melding” our borders with our neighbours is such a big deal to us. It’s no coincidence, I believe, that, although there are now stirrings of discontent in some other European countries regarding the European ideal, the first of those stirrings started right here in the troublesome little island of ours, and, if the referendum goes the right way (out), we’ll be first country to call it quits and leave – and even if it goes the wrong way (in), we’ll still be the first to have been uncomfortable enough with the situation to demand a referendum about it.

    Cecily’s great little video shows this perfectly. Take a look at it and keep your eye on the British Isles. With just a few little changes around the edges from time to time, Britain has stayed pretty much the same colour without change for virtually the whole film, whilst the rest of Europe shifts and changes and alters almost constantly. That kind of constancy (or indeed change) cannot surely help but create a very different mindset between the populations of a country remaining largely untouched compared to those whose borders have changed almost constantly throughout the 1000 years in question.

  16. Pingback: The Spirit Of Place | Frank Davis

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