We investigate the climate signature of δ18O tree-ring records from sites distributed all over Europe covering the last 400 years. An empirical orthogonal function (EOF) analysis reveals two distinct modes of variability on the basis of the existing δ18O tree-ring records. The first mode is associated with anomaly patterns projecting onto the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and reflects a multi-seasonal climatic signal. The ENSO link is pronounced for the last 130 years, but it is found to be weak over the period from 1600 to 1850, suggesting that the relationship between ENSO and the European climate may not be stable over time. The second mode of δ18O variability, which captures a north–south dipole in the European δ18O tree-ring records, is related to a regional summer atmospheric circulation pattern, revealing a pronounced centre over the North Sea. Locally, the δ18O anomalies associated with this mode show the same (opposite) sign with temperature (precipitation). Based on the oxygen isotopic signature derived from tree rings, we argue that the prevailing large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns and the related teleconnections can be analysed beyond instrumental records.