Western Europe is distinguished from Central Europe and Eastern Europe by differences of history and culture rather than by geography. However, these boundaries of Europe are subject to considerable overlap and fluctuation, which makes differentiation difficult. Thus the concept of Western Europe is associated with liberal democracy; and its countries are generally deemed to be well within the cultural hegemony of the United States of America.
Up to World War I, "Western Europe" was thought to comprise France, the British Isles and Benelux. These countries represented the democratic victors of both world wars; and their ideological approach was spread further east as a consequence, in a process not unlike the ideological effect of the Napoleonic Wars, when new ideas spread from revolutionary France.
During the Cold War, this ideological designation of Western Europe was supplemented with the aspect of market economy in the West versus the planned economy of Eastern Europe, reflecting the anti-Bolshevism that was aroused in Western Europe by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the remaining opposition to the Soviet Union in general. Thus Western Europe came to include both traditional democracies outside of NATO, as Finland, Sweden and Switzerland, and some market economy dictatorships, as Portugal and Spain. This is also why NATO members such as Greece and Turkey were generally considered Western European even though they are geographically in the southeast. The borders between Western and Eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain, were securely defended.
Until the enlargement of the European Union of 2004, Western Europe was sometimes associated with that Union, although non-members such as Norway and Switzerland unquestionably were considered parts of Western Europe, although the connection to NATO or to the European Union increasingly may be perceived as historical. Today, a common understanding of Western Europe includes the following parts:
- the Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark)
- the Alpine countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia)
- the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg)
- the British Isles (Ireland, the United Kingdom)
- Germany, France and Monaco
- the Iberian peninsula (Spain, Andorra, Portugal)
- the Apennine peninsula (Italy, San Marino, Vatican City)
- in a political context also Greece, Cyprus, and occasionally even Turkey.
It ought to be borne in mind that the concepts of Europe's division overlap. The Nordic countries being counted to Western Europe does not at all hinder their also being considered part of Northern Europe. Similarly, the Alpine countries may be considered part of Central Europe, and Italy, the Iberian countries, Monaco, Greece and southern France part of Southern Europe as well.
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