498 – Monumental Drift: Europe’s Many Midpoints
Where is the geographical midpoint of Europe? The question is straightforward enough, but the answer isn’t. It depends on what exactly you mean by Europe. Does the term define a continent or a political project? If a continent, is Turkey in it? Is Armenia? Which outlying islands are, which vestigial colonies (1) aren’t? And if Europe is a political project, which one? The European Union, the Council of Europe, the Schengen Area, the eurozone (2)?
To such a remarkably elastic concept, one constant seems to apply: whatever its definition, geographers (and politicians, and tourist offices) want to find out where its middle is, and mark it with a curiously bland monument. Europe is dotted with at least a dozen of these monuments. This map shows seven European centre-points, including the oldest, and the currently most accepted midpoints. What follows, provides some explanation on these and a few other claimants.
- 1775: the Polish astronomer and cartographer Szymon Sobiekrajski declared the Polish city of Suchowola (53°34′36″N, 23°6′6″E) to be the geographic centre of Europe – probably the first locality thus garlanded. A large rock still marks the designated spot.
- 1813: according to local tradition, Napoleon proclaimed Dyleň (3) (49°58′4″N, 12°30′10″E), a 3.250 feet (almost 1.000 m) high mountain, to be the geographical centre of Europe. A stone pillar was erected in 1862, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The site is at present located just inside the Czech Republic, but it is also promoted by the tourist board of the nearby German town of Neualbenreuth.
- At around the same time: another local tradition holds that the selfsame Napoleon declared Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria, to be Europe’s centre.
- 1887: Austro-Hungarian railway engineers placed Europe’s midpoint in Dilove, near Rakhiv (47°57′46″N, 24°11′14″E). This location, presently in western Ukraine near the Romanian border, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. The Latin-inscribed geodetic monument still stands, partly because the Austro-Hungarian claim was later resurrected by Soviet propaganda.
- Early 1900s: German geographers concluded that Europe’s midpoint was not located in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but in – what a surprise – Germany: near the Frauenkirche in Dresden.
- Other old claims to Central European fame include those of the towns of Kremnické Bane and Krahule, both near the central Slovakian city of Kremnica; of České Budějovice in the Czech Republic; and of Torun in central Poland (the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus; it is unclear whether he would have approved of the rather shaky claim).
- 1992: a Hungarian claim, largely unrecognised outside of the country, places the Geometric Centre of Europe at the village of Tallya, where a memorial sculpture has duly been unveiled.
You don’t need a degree in geography to see that many of these claims are infused with a considerable dose of nationalism. It’s very tempting to find one’s own city, region or country at the centre of the European concert of nations. Even if the definition of what is Europe (or the method to calculate its geometric centre) need to be bended just a bit:
- If you take into account all of Europe’s islands, from Portugal’s Azores to Russia’s Frantz Josef Land, and from Iceland to Crete, then Europe Central might very well be – and quite appropriately, were it not so improbably northern – another island: Saaremaa, off Estonia’s coast – near the town of Monnuste (58°18′14″N, 22°16′44″E), to be exact.Unsurprisingly, the local authorities are looking to exploit the claim for touristic purposes.
- No country might be more in need of touristic attractiveness than grimly-named Belarus (4), the last dictatorship of Europe and, due to the proximity to Chernobyl, probably the only glow-in-the-dark dictatorship in the world. Which might explain why not only Vitebsk (55°11′0″N, 30°10′0″E), but also Babruysk (53°34′01″N, 29°23′52″E) and Polotsk (55°30′0″N, 28°48′0″E) all claim to be the centre of Europe.
There are, however, more objective criteria for selecting a European centre. Such as using a specific number of well-defined nations, like the members of the main European supranational body, now known as the European Union. Since its inception in 1957 (5), the EU has grown from a 6-member association to a 27-nation union. The geographic centre has shifted every time one or more new member states acceded, which has happened on seven separate occasions.
France’s Institut Géographique National (IGN)has calculated the geographic (or, more precisely, the geometric) centre of this expanding ‘Europe’ since at least 1987. Here are the four last phases of enlargement.
- 12-member union (1986-1995): the centre is near Saint-André-le-Coq, in France’s central Auvergne region, moving 16 miles (25 km) north to the hamlet of Noireterre after German reunification in 1990. A monument of this second midpoint still exists.
- 15-member union (1995-2004): the accession of Austria, Sweden and Finland yanks Europe’s centre north to Viroinval (6) in Belgium (50°00′33″N, 4°39′59″E), still marked by a monument.
- 25-member union (2004-2007): with the accession of ten new member states, mainly in Eastern Europe, the Union’s centre-point moved 140 miles northeast, to the western German village of Kleinmaischeid (50°31′31″N, 7°35′50″E). A small monument remains.
- 27-member union (2007-present): as Bulgaria and Romania join, the EU’s centre moves east by another 115 km, to a field in the German town of Gelnhausen (50°10′21″N, 9°9′0″E) near Frankfurt am Main. Information on whether a monument marks the spot is unavailable…
France might no longer be the centre of the European Union, it still contains the midpoint of the eurozone.
- The centre of the original 11 members of the eurozone, which came into being on New Year’s Day 1999, was Blancafort, a commune in France’s Centre region (monument erected: check!)
- With Greece entering the eurozone on New Year’s Day 2001, its midpoint moved to Montreuillon, in the Bourgogne.
- When Slovenia entered the euro area on New Year’s Day 2007, the centre-point moved again, if only a few kilometres, to Mhère (still in Burgundy).
- Precisely one year later, when Malta and Cyprus joined the euro, the centre moved to the nearby commune of Ouroux-en-Morvan.
- Still another year later, on New Year’s Day 2009, Slovakia joined and the central point of the Eurozone moved yet again, this time to the town of Liernais, still in the Bourgogne (47°12′27″N, 4°16′59″E).
- Since Estonia joined, on New Year’s Day 2011, the Eurozone’s midpoint moved again, to a place near the town of Villy en Auxois – like all previous Eurozone midpoints, located in a French commune.
So, in that cacophony of centralities, is there a Midpoint of Midpoints, a European Centre everyone can agree upon? Well, probably not everyone, but something close enough: in 1989, a new calibration of the continent’s borders led Jean-George Affholder of the IGN to determine that the geographic centre of Europe was located at Bernotai, near Purnuškės (54°54′N, 25°19’E), a small town in Lithuania about 16 miles (26 km) north of the capital Vilnius. An impressive white granite monument was erected in 2004. Lithuania has the best credentials, as its midpoint is the only one recognised as such by – no, not the EU, or any of the other European supranational bodies – but by… the Guinness Book of World Records.
This map was found here on the Wikipedia page for Europe’s midpoints. If anyone knows of a map detailing all (or more) midpoints mentioned in this post, drop me a line. The stories of Europe’s (generally eastward-moving) midpoints are reminiscent of the history (and westward drift) of America’s mean population centre, as described in #389.
(1) France’s overseas territories like French Guyana in South America are integral parts of France itself, hence also of the European Union. Other European countries (i.c. the Netherlands and the UK) also maintain links to overseas territories, although in varying degrees of integration into the ‘motherland’.
(2) Lower-case, as it refers to a currency. Also: euroland. Officially: euro area.
(3) Czech; Tillenberg in German.
(4) Sounds like Bela Lugosi, the actor typecast as Dracula, adding to the country’s perceived grimness; before its name-change in 1991, the country was known as B(y)elorussia or White Russia. They should have stuck with the latter name, which at least refers to a popular cocktail.
(5) Then the European Coal and Steel Community. It was merged into the European Economic Community in 1967, and finally European Union in 1993.
(6) Very close to the national border with France. Curious, since some other midpoints also seem to be very close to national borders.