“Welcome back to Europe – *Don’t* mention the EU!” Basil Fawlty-ed a Dutch friend upon hearing that I was moving to the UK.
Yes, the British have a reputation of not wanting to be considered part of Europe. But surely, I thought, they must think they’re on some continent. If not Europe, then which continent did they think they were on?
I did some Googling that led to the deepest, darkest, messiest corners of the web, and I found my answers: apparently, people believe, the UK is either not on any continent, or it is itself a continent.
Here are some questions people are asking online. (No links on most of these for your sanity.)
“What continent is England on?”
“On which continent is the UK?”
“Is England a European continent?”
“Is the UK on a continent?”
“Is the United Kingdom a country or a continent?”
and this one, from a concerned mother on a (British) parenting site:
“If you were asked what continent the UK was in, would you think there was something wrong with the question?”
But before I could laugh, I read further, and I suddenly saw where the confusion came from: “I would presume, the UK is in Europe, but it is an island, not a continent?”
Now I get it. People are not entirely stupid. At least not all of them. They have heard of “continental drift”, and know that continents are big parts of land, slowly moving around on the earth, drifting apart to form oceans, and bumping together to form mountain ranges. By that definition, a “continent” is a large slab of land, and Great Britain and Ireland are just bits that have fallen off their continent.
But as someone else in that thread points out, not all the bits of a continent have to be above water: “I think the continental plates are the important factors — Britain is on the European continental plate?”
Yes, that’s probably scientifically correct. It gets more confusing, though, when you add politics and convention to define a “continent” for geographical (not geological!) purposes. Turkey and Russia are both on two continents, according to my map of Europe. India is part of Asia, even though it comes from a geologically distinct plate. And how many continents are covered in the area between the Hudson Bay and Tierra del Fuego? Nobody on the internet can agree on this. Even Wikipedia gives up and just throws a bunch of maps and options at you. I learned three: North America (US and Canada), Middle America (from Mexico to the Panama Canal), and South America (everything below the canal). More often I’ve heard North America used to also include Mexico, with everything below Mexico being part of South America. But you can also refer to this entire pole to pole area as America.Europe, of course, is even more complicated. Within my own living memory, the borders of most of its countries have shifted so often that I would not be able to confidently tell you where Asia starts. I was always pretty secure about the western border of Europe, though, until I just looked at some maps and discovered that Greenland can be part of North America
Europe, of course, is even more complicated. Within my own living memory, the borders of most of its countries have shifted so often that I would not be able to confidently tell you where Asia starts. I was always pretty secure about the western border of Europe, though, until I just looked at some maps and discovered that Greenland can be part of North America depending on how you look at it. Geologists consider it part of the American continent, but politicians reason that it should be part of Europe. Are you confused yet?
But the UK, surely, is part of Europe… right?
Let’s have a cup of tea and a watercress sandwich, and check the internet again! “Here’s a great anecdote from a travel forum“.
“I was standing in line with my daughter at Disney World and met a gentleman from the U.K. and I asked what he thought about being in the E.U., He very politely let me know that the U.K. was not part of Europe”
The comments in that thread clearly illustrate how confused people are by the various distinctions between “landmass”, “continent”, “Europe”, “EU”, “economic union”, “island” and “country”. And these are travelers, who tend to know what they’re talking about when it comes to geography.
It’s a nice mix of science and politics, but in the end, yes, the UK is really part of the EU, and really part of Europe. “The continent” is just a phrase to refer to the non-island part of Europe, where they eat “continental” breakfasts. But both geologically and politically, the UK is on a continent, and it’s Europe.
There, I said it.
Please don’t deport me. To the continent. That I’m already on…
(photo from freefoto)