With a new(ish) emphasis on history, it’s probably an idea to outline where I’m coming from.
My approach to history is not coherent enough to be defined by any one term, but has probably most been influenced by the French Annales School, most notably the work of Fernand Braudel and the concept of the longue durée (first developed by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre). To boil a complex concept down to its fundamentals, this means that to understand both past and present, I believe that a long, wide view is necessary – one that takes into account as much as is feasibly possible of what might influence a society/culture. In short, while the minutiae of history can be fascinating, they cannot be understood without the wider context.
Taking this approach, nation states can be seen as little more than recent developments within a far larger entity, emerging over the course of the last thousand or so years (though only crystallising firmly during the last few hundred) of a Western/European civilisation that can more or less coherently be traced back to Ancient Greece. They are interesting, but not fully understandable without looking at the wider picture – not even the most powerful and oldest of them.
As Arnold Toynbee noted in his masterly A Study of History,
English history does not become intelligible until we view it as the history of a wider society of which Great Britain is a member in company with other nation states, each of which reacts, though each in its own way, to the common experiences of the society as a whole. Similarly, Venetian history has to be viewed as the history of a temporary sub-society including Milan, Genoa, Florence, and the other ‘medieval’ city-states in Northern Italy; Athenian history as the history of a society including Thebes, Corinth, Sparta, and the other city-states of Greece in the Hellenic Age.”
Would Britain be what she is today without the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and then Norman invasions? Without the impact of the Roman Catholic Church? Without the medieval revival of classical learning and introduction of advanced mathematics and algebra via European contact with Arab scholars? Without the centuries of warfare with France? Without the huge upheaval sparked by Italian Renaissance thought and the German/Swiss ideas that shaped the English and Scottish Reformations? Without the proximity of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, offering sanctuary and a base for dissidents and propagandists? Without the Glorious Revolution, itself a Dutch invasion that was part of a wider European unease about the rise of France’s Louis XIV? Without the competition for global trade and territories with the other European imperial powers? Without the upheavals of the French and American Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars? Without the rise of truly global trade and increasingly powerful economic competitors through the 19th century? Without the vast upheavals of the First World War, Great Depression, Second World War and Cold War?
In this approach, Europe can be seen as a more or less coherent entity for much of the last two thousand years – albeit an entity whose borders have shifted and remain ill-defined – and Western/European society/culture as something distinct from that of its near neighbours in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East (even while, thanks to such close proximity, sharing some elements and – on the borders – some overlap). Meanwhile, the borders of Europe’s constituent states have been in constant flux – even those of Britain (first the heptarchy, then Wessex, then England, then England and Wales, also taking in much of Northern France until the loss of Calais in 1558, then the merger with Scotland, the addition of Ireland, the loss of Eire and addition of Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom – not to mention the various far-scattered overseas territories like Gibraltar and the Falklands).
The defining influences on this Western/European society/culture have been (to massively over-simplify) Ancient Greece (especially Athens), the Roman Empire, Judeo-Christian religion, French courtly life, and British parliamentary democracy. Its influence in turn has spread worldwide via the various European empires, so that aspects of Western/European society/culture have embedded themselves around the world – most obviously in the Anglosphere, but also in Latin America, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, and various parts of Africa and South East Asia.
Within Europe, its influence roughly coincides with the continent’s geographic borders – halting more or less with the Mediterranean to the South, and fading to the East over the Russian Steppes, where it slowly merges with other societies/cultures both on the Russian fringe and within Russia itself.
In short, you can understand pretty much any European country without knowing anything much about the history of China; you cannot understand pretty much any European country without knowing something of the history of its neighbours. Not even the big beasts of Britain and France, long the two most influential European states (with apologies to Spain), and certainly not the more recent arrivals on the European scene.
This is why I find Europe – however ill-defined that term might still be – a worthwhile and coherent unit of study.