Europe vs. EU vs. Eurozone vs. Schengen Area: What’s the Difference?

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Podcast Transcript

Everyone knows that Europe is one of the seven continents in the world, right? 

Well, there is actually a problem with that. For starters, where exactly does Europe end and Asia begin?

On top of that, there is more than one Europe. While there is a geographic Europe, there is also a political, economic, and cultural Europe, and every one of those is slightly different from the other. 

Learn more about the differences between Europe, the EU, the Eurozone, and the Schengen Zone on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Geographically speaking, there is no Europe. 

By the same logic, there must also not be an Asia, but this episode is focused on Europe, so let’s just look at that half of the equation. 

Eurasia is one giant landmass, and there is no natural feature you can look at for where you can divide the two continents. 

Africa is connected by land, but only at a very small point. Likewise, North and South America are only connected by a very small strip of land.

That’s not the case with Europe and Asia. To separate the two geographically, you’d have to draw an arbitrary line through an enormously large amount of land. 

So, while in a strictly technical, geographic sense, Europe doesn’t exist, in another sense, it, of course, does exist. When I refer to Europe, you know what I’m talking about, and if only for historical and cultural reasons, it makes sense to split the Eurasian landmass.

But if we are to do so, where exactly do you draw the line?  The western part of Turkey to the left of the Bhosperus is considered to be in Europe, and the eastern part of the Anatolian Peninsula is considered to be in Asia. 

So we can set the Bhosperus as one division between Europe and Asia. 

But if you keep following Turkey to the northeast, you can loop around the Black Sea, and you can find yourself in Europe again. 

The area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is known as the Caucasus due to the Caucasus Mountains that roughly go between them, running northwest to southeast. 

Mountain ranges make for good borders, so the Caucasus have served as another natural dividing line between Europe and Asia. 

Once you go further east of the Caspian Sea, you have the same problem, except this time, you have an enormous expanse of land. Thankfully, there is a mountain range that runs roughly north-south from the Arctic Ocean down almost, but not quite, to the Caspian Sea, the Ural Mountains. 

That gap between the end of the Urals and the Caspian Sea has a river that goes between them, the Ural River. 

With the Ural River, we can finally close the loop and sort of define something that we can call Europe. This is a completely arbitrary definition, but it is the one that is usually used to define Europe geographically.

With this definition, you have two countries that definitely straddle both Europe and Asia, Russia and Turkey.


However, you also have some rather ambiguous cases.

The Ural River mostly goes through the nation of Kazakhstan. Does this make Kazakhstan or at least part of Kazakhstan European? 

Likewise, there are three different countries in the Caucuses, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Are these countries in Europe, or are they in Asia? 

The answer to all these questions is….it depends. It depends on how you define it, who you ask, and what is at stake. 


The point of all this is that the boundary and definition of what Europe is is very arbitrary. There have been lines drawn in other places, and some of the edge case countries can be European or Asian depending on what benefits them.

On the western end of things, you have the case of Iceland. Iceland is located right where the European and North American tectonic plates meet. In fact, there are places you can go in Iceland where you can walk between them. 

So is Iceland a European country or a North American country? Geologically you could say both, but culturally and linguistically, they clearly have their roots in Europe. 

So let me change the focus of this discussion now from geography and geology to culture and politics. 

Europe has gone through thousands of years of infighting and conflicts that I’ve covered throughout dozens of episodes. 

After two horrific wars in the 20th century, several European states decided that enough was enough and decided to work together rather than fight against each other. 

In the 1950s, there were three transnational organizations established in Europe by a series of treaties: the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Economic Community. 

These organizations were called the European Communities and were designed to forge tighter economic relations between countries. The European Communities were founded by six countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.

Over time, the number of countries that joined this group grew, and the nature of the group changed. In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty was signed that formed the basis of a new organization known as the European Union. 

As of the time of recording this episode, 27 member states make up the European Union or EU. 

Most countries in Europe, not including the border cases in the east, which I’ve previously mentioned, are members of the EU. In fact, it is easier just to list the countries that are not members of the EU. 

In Eastern Europe, the former Soviet states of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova are not in the EU.

The former Yugoslavian states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia are not in the EU along with Albania. 

All the European microstates are not in the EU, including Monaco, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra, and Vatican City. 

Finally, four mainline Western European countries are not in the EU: Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom.

The European Union often acts as a singular entity, and when it does so, it is often referred to simply as “Europe.” When European delegates have a summit with Chinese delegates, they are referring to delegates from the EU, not just random European countries.  

Of the countries not in the EU, four of them banded together to form the European Free Trade Association or EFTA. These countries are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. These countries wanted the benefits of free trade with other European countries but didn’t want the bureaucracy and additional layer of politics that came with the EU

In 1994 EFTA and the EU created the European Economic Area.

The whole point of the EU was to improve trade and commerce between European countries. It was previously a pain for goods and people to cross borders in Europe. There were a lot of borders, and every crossing required passport checks and inspections. 

There was also the issue of multiple currencies that were found all over Europe. Doing business across Europe was difficult and confusing, having so many currencies.

The result of all this confusion with border crossings and currencies resulted in a move to remove all border controls and the creation of a single European currency, the Euro. 

However, there was a catch. That catch is the entire reason I’m doing this episode, and it is something that anyone who has traveled extensively in Europe has had to deal with. 

The countries that participate in the Euro are known as the Eurozone, and they are not the same as the countries that make up the EU.

Likewise, the countries that allow free travel between them do so because of the Schengen Agreement, a treaty first signed in 1985 which is totally separate from the EU. The area where you can travel freely between countries in Europe is known as the Schengen Area. 

Let’s first start with the Eurozone. 

When the Euro was created, not all members of the European Union were on board, and several EU member states opted out. The United Kingdom, which was a member at the time, kept the British Pound. 

Denmark and Sweden likewise kept their currencies. 

As countries in Eastern Europe joined the EU, they didn’t automatically become members of the Eurozone. 

Today, EU member states Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria do not use the Euro as currency. 

All of the countries, save for Denmark, are obligated by treaty to adopt the Euro eventually, however, only Romania and Bulgaria are poised to do so in the near future. 

On top of the EU countries that don’t use the Euro, several microstates not in the EU have signed treaties that allow them to use the Euro and to produce a limited number of coins each year. 

These countries are Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City. 

Then there are two countries that are not in the Eurozone and do not have monetary agreements with the European Central Bank that just went ahead and adopted the Euro anyhow. They are Kosovo and Montenegro.

The European Union and the European Central Bank have complained about these countries using the Euro but haven’t really done anything about it. 

So the map of the EU and the map of the Eurozone is not at all the same. 

The same is true with the Schengen Area. Both the EU and the Schengen Area have 27 member states, but they are not the same. 

The Schengen Agreement gets its name from the city in Luxembourg, where it was signed. 

Countries that have signed the Schengen Agreement allow free travel between them. They can travel as easily from one country to another as you can from one US state to another. 

When you enter the Schengen Zone with a passport from outside the Schengen Area, you can stay inside the zone for up to 90 days in any 180-day period. 

Not all EU member states are in the Schengen Zone. Bulgaria and Romania, as of the time I am recording this, are not in the Schengen Zone but may finally enter by the end of 2023 or the start of 2024.  

Several EU member states blocked their bid to join for over a decade. 

Ireland is also not a part of the Schengen Zone, nor is the United Kingdom, which is no longer in the EU. 

Ireland and the UK opted out of the Schengen Zone but do have a similar system with each other where people can travel freely between the two countries. You can drive from Belfast to Dublin or take a ferry from Dublin to Wales without any passport checks. 

Except that Gibraltar, which is part of the UK, has a border with Spain. Negotiations are currently underway, but it appears that some sort of agreement will be reached where Spain is responsible for Schengen passport control for people entering Gibraltar. 

Cyprus is also in the EU but has not yet signed the Schengen Agreement, and there is no firm date on which they will enter.

There are several non-EU countries are part of the Schengen Zone. All of the EFTA countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, are part of the Schengen Zone. 

Likewise, San Marino, Monaco, and Vatican City are defacto members of the Schengen Zone but have not signed the Schengen Agreement. They just have open borders with the countries that surround them. 

Andorra is a special case in that it borders two countries, France and Spain, both of which are in the Schengen Zone. However, Andorra is not a member of the Schengen Agreement, but it also has no visa policy.

Technically, they do have border control with both France and Spain, which I’ve driven through several times, but they are mostly concerned with goods, not stamping passports. I’ve been able to drive right into Andorra without being stopped. 

Putting aside currency and border controls, there is one thing that truly unites all of Europe, the annual Eurovision Song Contest. 

It has been held since 1957 by the European Broadcasting Union. The countries which compete in Eurovision are much broader than any of the organizations I’ve previously mentioned. 

Eurovision includes Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Belarus. However, Liechtenstein has never competed, nor has Kosovo. 

Strangely enough, there have been entries from countries that are in no way European. Morocco competed for one year in 1980. 

Israel began competing in 1973. While it is on the Mediterranean and sort of in the neighborhood, it is in no way European. 

The really strange entry was that of Australia, on the other end of the world, which has competed since 2015. 

In 2023, for the first time, Canada will be competing. 

At that point, the only continent they will be missing is South America, and maybe they should just change the name to Worldvision. 

There are even more European entities, such as the European Political Community and the European Council, that I haven’t addressed, which makes for one exceptionally crazy diagram trying to map which country is a member of what. 

By this point, you can probably see that defining what Europe is geographically is very difficult and arbitrary. Likewise, much of the political and economic unity in Europe is actually pretty fragmented. 

Europe is a continent, if it is a continent, of exceptions and nuance.