The British Isles, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France may be grouped together as western Europe. Portugal, Spain, and Norway also border the Atlantic Ocean, but the Iberian Peninsula as a whole is best classified as Mediterranean, while Norway belongs to northwestern Europe. As a group the countries of western Europe do not form so clear a unit as do the Nordic states of northwestern Europe. Each has experienced a distinct individual development, for ethnographically Great Britain and Holland are essentially Nordic, Ireland is Celtic, France is Romance, and Belgium lies in a zone of transition between Romance and Nordic influences. Moreover, parts of France are of the Mediterranean type, and other parts represent a transition to central Europe. Nevertheless, all countries of western Europe have in common (1) the west-coast marine type of climate; (2) close contact with the sea; (3) a consequent great development of overseas commerce; (4) large colonies which are intimately related to this commerce; and (5) a high development of manufacturing. This last is more important in Great Britain and Belgium than in France and Netherlands, but is significant in all four countries. Then, too, all these countries have attained a high cultural standing which is fairly uniform in spite of strong individuality.
Taken together the four countries of western Europe have well over 100 million inhabitants, which gives an average density of more than 300 persons per square mile. This, however, gives little indication as to cultural conditions, for large areas are almost uninhabited. Equally significant is the fact that these countries carry on as much foreign commerce as do nearly four times as many people in the remainder of Europe.
Factors in Britain's Outstanding Position
Few people would question that Great Britain has for several centuries occupied a position of outstanding influence in world affairs. There is, however, much debate as to causes of this. Most authorities agree that insularity, location, climate, and natural resources, as well as the character of the people, have played important parts.
The fact that Great Britain is an island and yet lies close to the mainland has been a great help in giving the country a leading position. Because the island has been cut off from hostile or competing countries by a strip of water, it has been able to develop its own peculiar characteristics more freely than have most countries. For example, the need of a strong central government which could act quickly in an emergency has been much less than in countries like France and Germany. This has made it easier to develop democratic institutions and representative government, two lines in which Britain especially excels. And this in turn has made Britain a refuge for persecuted Europeans who want to think for themselves. But once embarked in a loaded, seagoing ship, it is only a little more difficult to go a thousand or three thousand miles than one hundred. This fact became of supreme importance when the discovery of America shifted the center of maritime interest from the North Sea and the Mediterranean to the broad Atlantic.