In the last decade, Europe has been stricken by two outstanding heatwaves, the 2003 event in western Europe and the 2010 episode over Russia. Both events were characterized by record-breaking temperatures and widespread socio-economic impacts, including significant increments on human mortality, decreases in crop yields and in hydroelectric production. Previous works have shown that an extreme climatic event does not always imply an extreme response by ecosystems. This work attempts to assess how extreme was the vegetation response to the heatwaves during 2003 and 2010 in Europe, in order to quantify the impacts of the two events on carbon fluxes in plant productivity and to identify the physical drivers of the observed response. Heatwave impacts in vegetation productivity were analysed using MODIS products from 2000 to 2011. Both 2003 and 2010 events led to marked decreases in plant productivity, well below the climatological range of variability, with carbon uptake by vegetation during August reaching negative anomalies of more than 2 standard deviations, although the 2010 event affected a much larger extent. A differentiated response in autotrophic respiration was observed, depending on land-cover types, with forests increasing respiration rates in response to the heatwaves, while in crops respiration rates decreased. The widespread decrease in carbon uptake matched the regions where very high temperature values were also preceded by a long period of below-average precipitation, leading to strong soil moisture deficits. In the case of the 2003 heatwave, results indicate that moisture deficits coupled with high temperatures drove the extreme response of vegetation, while for the 2010 event very high temperatures appear to be the sole driver of very low productivity.