Tracking the Ever-Shifting Geographic Heart of the European Union

Gädheim, Germany: The first — and many would hope last —location to be named as the geographic midpoint of the EU due to a member state withdrawing. . (Photo: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images)

Ask most folks where the center of the European Union is and they’ll tell you Brussels.

It’s an accurate response but also one that only acknowledges the magnificent, multilingual Belgian city’s role as governmental center of the EU — the de facto capital of the European community with additional institutional bodies being located in Luxembourg City, Frankfurt and the storybook Alsatian city of Strasbourg, which serves as the seat of the European Parliament.

Ask somewhat where the geographic center of the European Union is and you’ll likely get a shoulder shrug or a wild guess of "somewhere in the middle of Germany?" which, as it turns out, isn’t too far off.

A different but no less confounding beast than identifying the geographic center of the European continent (more on that in a bit), the literal heart of the EU has relocated numerous times since its creation in 1958 with six founding states: France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and West Germany.

And it’s only been since 1987 that cartographers at France’s Institut National de l’Information Géographique et Forestière (formerly the Institut Géographique National or, simply, the IGN) have tracked the EU’s ephemeral center, which moves based on the comings and goings — until recently, exclusively the former — of EU member states, which today includes 28 countries.

With the United Kingdom’s highly lamented — and highly damaging, as many speculate — withdrawal from the EU pending, the heart of the European community is poised to move for the first time since July 2013 when the IGN, prompted by Croatia’s newly minted member status, identified the new geodetic center of Europe as Westerngrund, a small community in Bavaria, Germany, located about an hour east of the EU’s financial center, Frankfurt.

Marker indicating the geographic center of EU in Gädheim, Germany
X marks the spot: The post-Brexit center of Europe is located on a private farm located in the petite Bavarian hamlet of Gädheim. (Photo: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images)

As it turns out, Brexit won’t alter things too dramatically when it comes to the EU’s ever-shifting center.

In fact, the heart of the EU will stay put in Bavaria — fabled land of lederhosen and obscenely plump cased meats — as Westerngrund passes the torch to Gädheim, an even smaller rural community located about an hour's drive southeast through the picturesque Bavarian countryside.

As the Guardian reports, the residents — all 78 of them — of tiny-teeny Gädheim are readying for an influx of attention and, of course, tourism. During its reign as EU’s geographic center, Westerngrund welcome roughly 10,000 visitors per year. Many of these visitors traveled from across Europe and beyond to stand and snap selfies in an otherwise unassuming locale on the outskirts of the village that's easy to find thanks to an official marker, EU flags and a picnic area.

Westerngrund relished its somewhat brief time in the spotlight while also anticipating that one day its celebrity would be passed on. However, as Westerngrund mayor Brigitte Heim tells the Guardian, she's saddened that the move is prompted by the exit of a member state, not a country joining and strengthening the EU.

"We always knew it was a gift lent to us for a limited amount of time. We just set about making the most of it," says Heim. "But we’re shocked and saddened by Brexit. When we earned the title it was because a country had joined, now we’re losing it because for the first time a country is leaving the EU — we just hope the negotiations might take a little longer than two years so we can hang on to it a little longer."

The center of the EU, Westerngrund, Bavaria, Germany
The rural German hamlet of Westerngrund has enjoyed its brief-ish stint as the geographic heart of the EU. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A growing community, a transient heart

In the beginning, during the European Union’s six-member infancy, its center was located near Besançon, a major historic population center near the French-Swiss border. In 1987, the IGN identified the center of the 12-member-strong community as being more or less smack-dab in the middle of France, in the commune of Saint-André-le-Coq in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (then Auvergne) region. In 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the center moved just slightly, about 15 miles to the northeast to the village of Saint-Clément.

When the EU grew to 15 members in 1995 with the accession of Finland, Sweden and Austria, the center drifted from France to the small Walloon town of Viroinval, in southwest Belgium.

This arrangement lasted nearly 10 years up until 2004 when the EU gained ten new members (Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Malta, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus, Latvia) and the midpoint shifted east to Germany. The center of the EU has remained in Germany ever since in three — eventually four when Brexit kicks in — different locales: Kleinmaischeid, a village in the wine-producing state of Rhineland-Palatinate (2004-2007); Gelnhausen, a postcard-perfect medieval market town in the center of the country in the state of Hesse (2007-2013); and, finally, Westerngrund, in northwest Bavaria, which was named the center of the EU by the IGN following the accession of Croatia in 2013.

In 2014, the French overseas department of Mayotte joined the EU although this shifted its center only slightly and it remained within the limits of Westerngrund, just in a different spot with different coordinates.

Monument signifying the geographic heart of the EU in Kleinmaischeid,Germany
Upon becoming a 25-member community in 2004, the heart of the EU crept from Belgium into Germany. This monument is in the village of Kleinmaischeid. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ladies and gents, the 'belly button' of the EU

So how exactly do cartographers at the IGN go about identifying the geographic enter of the EU?

As the Guardian explains, these expert map wizards reached their new calculations by "digitally flattening out the entire EU terrain, then in effect lifting it up like a piece of cloth to find its precise middle." With the U.K. out of the equation come March 2019, the IGN identified the precise coordinates of the EU’s center as being 9o 54’ 07" E and 49o 50’ 35" N, which lands in the middle of a rapeseed field owned by Gädheim farmer Karin Keßler.

"It was a bit of a surprise to wake up to the news," Keßler told the Guardian. "You could say Brexit has rattled us again, but in a good way, if that’s possible."

It wasn’t until Keßler’s software engineer son plugged in the exact coordinates established by the IGN that she discovered the new center of the EU — or the "belly button of the EU" as she puts it — wasn’t just located in her diminutive farming community but on their very own 136-acre property.

As the mayor of Veitshoechheim, a municipality that includes Gädheim, Jürgen Götz tells the Guardian that he looks forward to the village’s newfound fame and promoting the area's scenic, vineyard-dotted countryside. But unlike previous shifts of the EU’s center, this one is more bittersweet than anything.

"Of course we have mixed feelings about all this," he tells the Guardian. "We’re still discussing what we’ll do: put up a proper flag pole, erect a sausage kiosk, a hiking route with Westerngrund, that sort of thing. But we’ll enjoy it while it lasts. We can also wish that the talks might collapse and it’ll never happen. Then again, if Scotland or Serbia were to join, everything will shift once more."

EU flag in Gädheim, Germany
Located near the Franconian city of Wuerzburg in northern Bavaria, Gädheim is a farming community with just shy of 80 residents. (Photo: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images)

Let's not forget about Lithuania ...

The move from Westerngrund to Gädheim is indeed the first shift of the European community’s geographic midpoint to result from the exit of a full member state. However, constituent parts of full member states have withdrawn in the past including Greenland, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, in 1985. Algeria relinquished its EU member status after gaining independence from France in 1962. Unlike Brexit, both of these withdrawals did not have an impact on IGN calculations.

As Agence-France Presse notes, residents of both Westerngrund and Gädheim expressed concerns about the possibility that they'd also risk losing France, too, although the recent defeat of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen to her pro-EU opponent Emmanuel Macron has likely soothed those anxieties.

"Brexit is a step backwards. Things can't go on like this," Westerngrund mayor Brigitte Heim explained. "Of course we hope that France doesn't take the same step."

Major European countries that are not official members of the EU — and never have been — include Norway, Switzerland and Iceland along with several Balkan and former Eastern Bloc countries such as Ukraine, Macedonia and Albania. Microstates such as Monaco, Andorra, San Marino and Liechtenstein are also not members. Asia-straddling Turkey has been vying to join for at least 20 years to join the EU although current president Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t exactly seem too keen on continuing that push.

This leads to the question: where then, is the geographic center of Europe itself, not the European Union?

That answer has varied over the years as it largely depends on who is making the calculations and exactly how they are going about it given that important variables are subject to change.

In 1775, a Polish astronomer made the first such calculation when he declared the midpoint of Europe to be Suchowola, a town in the far northeast of Poland near the Belarus border. Subsequent calculations over the years have landed the coordinates in Estonia, Hungary, Belarus and Slovakia.

The most widely accepted coordinates, however, are 54°54′N 25°19′E, which places the center of Europe just outside the Lithuanian village of Purnuškės, not too far from this highly developed Baltic nation’s stunning capital city of Vilnius.

Map of Europe with geographic midpoint
What's the geographic midpoint of Europe, not the EU? The answer may vary although a spot near Vilnus, Lithuania, is perhaps the most well-known. (Photo: Google Maps)

What's the geographic midpoint of Europe, not the EU? The answer may vary although a spot near Vilnus, Lithuania, is perhaps the most well-known. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

This calculation, determined by an IGN scientist in 1989, has turned this unlikely site into a popular tourist attraction complete with an impressive white granite monument.

The United States has two recognized geographic centers. The first, established after Arizona and New Mexico gained statehood in 1912, is situated in extreme north-central Kansas, just a few miles south of the Nebraska border near the community of Lebanon. (Fans of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," now a much buzzed-about TV series, are probably well-acquainted with this far-flung prairie outpost.)

Determined in 1959 by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey, the second recognized center takes into consideration the entire U.S. including Alaska and Hawaii and not just the 48 contiguous states. (Territories not included.) By this calculation, the geographic midpoint of the U.S. is located in a pasture about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, county seat of Butte County, South Dakota.

This all said, the geographic heart of the U.S., unlike the EU, is unlikely to change. But given the uncomfortable and unsettled political atmosphere at the moment, you never know what might happen down the line ...