Southern Europe


  1. Regional Characteristics
  2. Demographic Analysis based on Population Data Sheet
  3. Countries
  4. References
  5. Review Questions

Regional Characteristics

The region of Southern Europe, also called Mediterranean Europe, extends along the Mediterranean Sea on the Southern edge of Europe. It encompasses the major countries of Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as the lesser nations of Andorra, Monaco, Vatican City, San Marino, and Malta (Bradshaw, 2002, p. 333).

The region of Southern Europe, because of its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, enjoys a Mediterranean climate. The area is fairly mild and wet in the winter and can be very hot and dry in the summer (Fisher, 1992, p.203). The coastal areas are at or near sea level elevations, but within the countries there are several highlands and mountain chains. In Italy, the Apennine Mountains run the span of the country from north to south. The Alps run east and west, along the northern Italian border with Switzerland. In Spain, the Pyrenees Mountains run north and south along the Spanish-French border. In Greece, we find the famous Mount Olympus and the Pindus Mountains.

Resources in this region are fairly limited. The main resource in this area is hydroelectricity, but even the availability of this resource can be restricted. The mountainous terrain, particularly in Italy around the Alps, provides ample land for use of hydro-energy, but lack of water inhibits the dependence of the region upon use of hydroelectricity. As a result, coal and fuels must be imported. Timber is another prominent resource in the region, but deforestation has impacted the available timber reserves.

Italy is the most populous country in the region, with about 59.3 million people, according to the 2007 Population Data Sheet. Spain has the next highest population with approximately 45.3 million people. Greece and Portugal have 11.2 million and 10.7 million people, respectively. The lesser nations of Malta and Andorra have substantially smaller populations, with the former having 0.4 million residents and the latter having 0.1 million residents (PRB, 2007).

The cultures in the region have some similar and some unique traits. All of these nations have their own official languages, but most of them also use English as a business language. Countries may additionally have multiple dialects of their official languages in a certain area and possibly even different popular languages throughout an area or the country. Andorra is the only nation that does not have a native language, as it shares the Catalan language with portions of Spain. As for the other nations, officially: Italians speak Italian, Greeks speak Greek, Portuguese speak Portuguese, and Maltese speak Maltese. Malta actually has two official languages, one being Maltese and the other being English (CIA, 2003). The primary religion in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Andorra, and Malta is Roman Catholic. In Greece, the official religion is Greek Orthodox (CIA, 2003).

Agriculture is the primary source of revenue in most of the nations of Southern Europe. Olives, citrus fruits, grapes, wheat, figs, and water-storing plants and cacti all grow very well in the Mediterranean climate (de Blij, 2002, p. 93). Southern Italy, Southern and Northwestern Spain and most of Greece and Portugal, especially the coastal lowlands, are all agriculturally based areas. These farmers do provide much of the countries’ food supplies and even provide some goods, particularly wine and olives, for exportation.

The region of Southern Europe has been very slow to develop economically. The areas around the major cities are usually highly industrialized, but the majority of remaining land in all of these countries in still agricultural. The two major exceptions to this are the areas of Northern Italy, near Milan, and Northeast Spain, in the Catalan region that surrounds Barcelona. Italy has the most industrialized economy in Southern Europe. Milan is not only the country’s industrial and economic center, but also its financial and service industry headquarters. The city, with under 10% of Italy’s population, accounts for over a third of the nation’s income. In both Spain and Italy, the richer areas have come to support the poorer areas. All of these nations have benefited from the formation of the European Economic Community (EEC). The ECC, now known as the European Union (EU), has made it easier for these nations to export agricultural products and import other necessary goods and has provided a way to compete with larger industrial economies. Spain and Portugal, both having been once ruled by dictators, joined the EEC in 1986, and Greece was one of the first nations to join the newly formed EU.

Demographic Analysis based on Population Data Sheet

Country Population Percent Natural Increase
Italy 59.3 mil 0%
Portugal 10.7 mil 0%
Greece 11.2 mil 0.0%
Spain 45.3 mil 0.3%
Malta 0.4 mil 0.2%
Andorra 0.1 mil 0.7%

Current Population and Natural Increase (2007) from Public Reference Bureau (Above)

All of the countries of Southern Europe are facing either stationary or declining populations. Spain and Andorra both have no projected population change from 2003 to 2050. Malta is expected to have an 8% decline in population, and Italy is projected to have a 9% decline. Greece and Portugal are expected to have the most substantial decline in population, at 12% and 10%, respectively. The rate of natural increase in the countries varies from -.1 in Italy to .8 in Malta (PRB, 2007).

Country Under 15 Older than 65
Italy 14% 20%
Portugal 16% 17%
Greece 14% 19%
Spain 14% 17%
Malta 17% 13%
Andorra 15% 12%

Percent of Population Under 15, Older than 65 (2007) from Public Reference Bureau (Above)

All of the countries of Southern Europe have approximately 30% of their population in the age ranges of under age 15 or over age 65. In Greece and Italy, the rate is 14/19, with 14% of the population being under age 15 and 19% over age 65. In Malta, the rate is 17/13. The rate is at 16/17 in Portugal and is very close at 14/17 in Spain (PRB, 2007). In comparison, in all of the countries of Southern Europe, the population distribution by age is fairly equal, both from country to country and between the two given age ranges. Thus, the majority of the population in all five countries is in the 15 – 64 year age range. These countries are not very different from their surrounding ones as the difference between the highest and lowest percent of the population under 15 is 14% and the difference between the highest and lowest percent of the population over 65 is 13%. (PRB, 2007)

Country Infant Mortality Rate
Italy 3.7
Portugal 3.5
Greece 3.8
Spain 3.8
Malta 6.0
Andorra 2.5

Infant Mortality Rate (Above)

The infant mortality rates in these countries are: Andorra – 4%, Greece – 5.9%, Italy – 4.8%, Malta – 3.4%, Portugal – 5%, and Spain – 3.5%. When compared with each other, the infant mortality rates of all six countries are very similar. These rates are slightly lower than the infant mortality rates of the neighboring countries of Eastern Europe, which range from 4.1% all the way up to 18.4%, and about the same as the rates in Western Europe, which range from 4.2% to 7.9% (PRB, 2007).

Country Percent Urban
Italy 68%
Portugal 55%
Greece 59%
Spain 77%
Malta 95%
Andorra 91%

Percent Urban Population from The World Bank (Above)

In Andorra, about 91% of the people live in urban areas. This is similar to Malta, in which 95% of the people live in urban areas. Spain has about 77% of its citizens residing in urban areas. The high agricultural dependency is reflected in the low urbanization rates of Greece and Portugal, at 59% and 55%, respectively. (PRB, 2007).

Country GNI PPP
Italy $29,840
Portugal $20,850
Greece $24,570
Spain $28,420
Malta $18,620
Andorra Not Reported

GNI PPP Figures from The World Bank (Above)

The GNI, PPP per capita, or Gross National Income in Purchasing Power Parity per capita, is the annual income per person, adjusted to match the amount of goods and services that one could buy in the United States in U.S. dollars.  This amount is fairly equal in all of Southern Europe, with the exception of Italy. In Italy, that amount is $29,840. In Portugal, the figure is $20,850. In Greece, in one year, the figure is $24,570. In Spain, the figure is $28,420 and in Malta, the figure is $18,620 (PRB, 2007). The three middle-level industrialized countries are very similar in GNI rates. The highly industrialized country of Italy has a substantially higher GNI rate than the other countries of Southern Europe, while the poor, agriculture-based country of Malta has a very low GNI rate when compared with the other countries of this region.


Spain is the largest country in land area of Southern Europe. With a population of 41.3 million people, it ranks second only to Italy in population density. The industrial section of Catalonia, the area surrounding Barcelona, is the most prosperous region in Spain. The capital city of Madrid is also a highly prosperous community. Spain is divided into 17 regions, each of which controls its own affairs and commerce (de Blij, 2002, p. 92). One of the current areas of controversy in Spain is the Basque region, which has been trying to achieve independence from the country of Spain.

Italy, which is harshly divided between the highly prosperous economic north and the very poor agricultural south, is the seventh most industrial power in the world. There has been much controversy over using the money of the wealthy north to subsidize the poor south (de Blij, 2002, p. 90). In the heart of this area of debate between northern and southern areas, we find the capital city of Rome. One economic advantage for Italy, like all other Southern European nations, is the influx of tourism into the country, which helps raise money in the poorer southern economies. The center of industry is in Milan and the northern areas, while the southern areas of Italy are engaged primarily in farming and tourism.

Portugal, the poorest of the major nations, is also the nation with the economy most dependent upon agriculture. Even the education system in Portugal is highly underdeveloped, with no high school system. Lisbon is the capital and the only major city. Portugal was once a thriving nation with many overseas colonies, but economic hardships have severely threatened this country. The only major source of industrialization is a joint Ford-Volkswagen manufacturing project located near Lisbon (Bradshaw, 2002, p. 337).

The last of the major nations is Greece. Once a cultural and intellectual center, Greece still highly benefits from its tourism industry. Ancient Greco architecture and the warm climate of Greece’s 3,000 islands attract millions of tourists each year. Farming is the major source of income for most people, with cotton, tobacco, olives, and fruits being the major crops. About 75% of the population of Greece lives within twenty-five miles of the capital city of Athens, which is also the main industrial center of Greece.

Malta, one of the many Mediterranean islands, is a very popular tourist destination for wealthy Europeans. Other industries in this country include a budding electronics industry and a prosperous ship building industry. The capital and main city is Valletta, located on the eastern coast of the island (CIA, 2003).

Andorra is a small area between France and Spain. This tiny nation is the only country of Southern Europe that is completely landlocked and does not touch the Mediterranean Sea. Tourism is again the major source of income, especially with regard to the skiing industry aided by the proximity of the French Alps. Other sources of income include forestry and cattle raising. The major city and the capital is Andorra la Vella (CIA, 2003).


Bradshaw, M. (2002). World regional geography: The new global order (2nd edition). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

CIA. (2003). The World Factbook [Online]. Spain:, Italy:, Portugal:, Greece:, Malta:, Andorra: [2003, Nov. 7].

De Blij, H.J. & Muller, P. (2002). Geography: realms, regions, and concepts (10th edition). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Fisher, J: Editor. (1992). Geography and development: a world regional approach (4th Edition). New York: Macmillan.

Population Reference Bureau.(2007). World Population Data Sheet. Washington, D.C.: PRB

The World Bank. (2007). World Development Indicators database [Online]. GNI Figures for 2006. [2007, Sept. 14].

Review Questions

  1. Which country has the highest hydroelectric power production potential: A. Netherlands; B. Ireland; C. Denmark; D. Italy.
  2. Italy's economic core area, no longer focused on Rome, is today located in: A. Southern Italy; near Venice; C. northern Italy around Milan; D. on the eastern periphery.
  3. The European Economic Community is an attempt by European countries to: A. effectively compete with the larger industrial economies of the world including the United States and Japan; B. eventually develop a common foreign policy; C. develop a common currency; D. solve the problem of differing price supports for agricultural products; E. all of the above.
  4. In 1986 two former dictatorships joined the European Community to raise its membership to a total of twelve countries. They were: A. Greece and Turkey; B. Spain and Portugal; C. Italy and Greece; D. France and Italy; E. none of the above.
  5. This country appears poorly endowed by nature when compared to most other Western European countries. Mountainous terrain and an unfavorably dry climate make much of the country poorly suited for farming, and there are not significant deposits of coal or iron ore. It is also divided between an agriculturally and industrially well-endowed north and a much poorer south. Even with these obvious drawbacks, it rates as the world's seventh most important industrial power: A. France; B. Belgium; C. Germany; D. Portugal; E. Italy.
  6. Which Southern European country has two official languages: A. Italy; B. Malta; C. Germany; D. Portugal; E. none of the above.
  7. Which country has a culture split in half by the north and south: A. Portugal; B. Spain; C. Italy; D. Belgium; E. France
  8. Out of the countries listed, which has the poorest educational system: A. Portugal; B. Germany; C. Spain; D. Greece; E. Italy.

Submitted by Jessica Adams on November 25, 2003. Original by Grant Thompson on December 5, 1996. Update submitted by Trent Hansen on 5-6-97. Edited by Karen Oyler on October 12, 2003.

Edited and Updated by Marc Cohen on April 10, 2008.