A handy guide to European microstates and micronations

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If you like to travel around Europe, or even if you just have an interest in international football or fiscal law, you can't help but notice that all the countries are not the same size. You have big countries, small countries, and then very small countries. How did these minnows come about? How did they survive all the pillaging and conquest over so many years? How can they be economically viable now? How do we stop them from eating the tax revenues of the rest of Europe? This entry aims at giving you a quick guide to the most interesting information about the tiny tiddlers of Europe.


As a working definition, we are using a population of less than a million, and a reasonable degree of autonomy. Population cut off means missing out on Cyprus, but that's already quite a big island. Only full sovereignty (microstates) would mean missing out on some of the most amusing micronations, and frankly, there isn't always that much difference. Svalbard (Spitsbergen) didn't make the cut though, as it doesn't even have pretensions to autonomy.

You will see that there are some common themes to the microstates and micronations, notably involving lots of banks, but also lots of rocks and lots of treaties...

It is worth noting that if you go back a few hundred years or so, this entry would have been much longer. There were loads of odd statelets in Germany and Italy with all sorts of varieties of nobles at their head. Blame Bismark, Napoleon and Mazzini/Cavour/Garibaldi for putting some order in the set up. Of course, this makes the survival of the few vestiges even more interesting...

The Aland Islands


An autonomous region of Finland, an archipelago halfway between Finland and Sweden.

All Grown up?

Autonomous and demilitarised, the Aland Islands have had a stable status since a League of Nations decision in 1921. Fully Swedish speaking despite being part of Finland.

How did they end up like that?

One of those historical situation where there was a long standing tug of war between the two closest countries (Sweden and Finland), and it ended up with autonomy as the simplest way of ending the squabbling. It was either that or play one for me, one for you with the various islands...

Financial monkey business?

Only the tax free ferries. Apart from that, not really a tax haven.

Any legitimate earnings?

Shipping, interestingly. Long tradition of moving things about on boats. Tourism.

Worth a visit?

Quite nice apparently. Peaceful.

Nice bit of rock?

If you like your bit of rock surrounded by water, then there are plenty of skerries to choose from.

Andorra

All Grown up?

Andorra has perhaps the wackiest constitutional arrangements of them all. It is a Co-Principality which means it has not one but two rulers -the President of France, fairly conventionally, but then also the Bishop of Urgell. It's not quite clear what is supposed to happen if they don't agree, but in practice the dynamic duo are only figureheads, with the real decisions being taken in a fairly conventional way. There is a Prime Minister, and a legislature known as the General Council.

How did they end up like that?

The Bishop has owned the place for a thousand years or so. He called in a French noble for protection from the Spanish, and this arrangement was then codified around 800 years ago. Only brief periods of being occupied by the French, amazingly. How Napoleon didn't simply annex the whole thing is beyond me. Minor scandal in 1933 with a half arsed coup d'état that didn't last long - full story on the Andorra entry above.

Financial monkey business?

A tax haven. Was on original June 2000 OECD blacklist, removed in May 2009. Duty free is a big earner.

Any legitimate earnings?

The white gold (snow for skiing) along with other forms of tourism. But mainly duty free shopping, sadly, as this has ruined the main mountain valley.

Worth a visit?

If you like mountains or you want a cheap handbag. Worth a look if you're on holiday in the area.

Nul points?

Football team is one of the traditional whipping boys for European Championship and World Cup qualifying. Ranked 205th in the world in 2013, making it the worst of the European microstates currently.

Nice bit of rock?

It's in a mountain valley, so rocky in general rather than on one particular rock. Mountain tops of over 2,000 metres within its territory.

Channel Islands

The Faroe Islands


A windswept Norse country, a long way up in the North Atlantic, somewhat between Norway and Iceland.

All Grown up?


Nope - it's a self-governing territory of the Danish Realm. Defence, police, justice, currency and foreign affairs are all managed from Copenhagen. There is a political party and movement campaigning for independence. They are not in the EU - when Denmark joined, they didn't.

How did they end up like that?

Good question, as it is a long way from Denmark, although not as far as Greenland of course (also Danish). Blame the Vikings basically, and the Treaty of Kiel.

Financial monkey business?

Not really a major centre for tax evasion. Too cold.

Any legitimate earnings?

Fish. Dependent on Danish subsidies for the moment.

Worth a visit?

Long way to go, and without the features of Iceland, for example.

Nul points?

Football team is the classic minnow. Many epic games in freezing temperatures, goalkeepers who play with woolly hats on, that sort of thing.

Nice bit of rock?

If you can find it under the ice and snow, there is rock.

Gibraltar

A peninsula on the Southern tip of Iberia, right on a very strategic part of the Med for controlling who comes in and who goes out.

All Grown Up?


Complicated. Gibraltar is technically a Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom. Foreign and defence policies are managed in London, but the rest is done on the rock. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, Gibraltar cannot become independent, otherwise the UK has to give it back to Spain. Gibraltar has an odd status within the EU - it is in the EU but not in the Customs Union or most of the sectoral legislation like the Common Agricultural Policy. This means that Gibraltar has to comply with, for example, all the EU environmental legislation - this causes no end of fun for Whitehall lawyers.

How did they end up like that?

Well, any discussion of this on the web normally descends into insults and mud-slinging between Gibraltarians on the one side and nationalist Spanish on the other. So let's keep it simple: Gibraltar was occupied by a whole host of various different colonisers at one point or the other, culminating in the British plus the Dutch kicking the Spanish out in 1704, with the subsequent Treaty of Utrecht regulating the current set up.

It is certainly worth nothing that it was a highly strategic naval base for several hundred years. This is undoubtedly a significant part of the explanation as to why the Brits held on to it.

Financial monkey business?

Oh yes, lots of monkeys! In fact they're macaques, technically. In terms of the other kind of monkey business, the Spanish government has made allegations of cigarette smuggling and general hanky-panky. There is still quite an offshore financial centre and lots of offshore gambling in particular.

Any legitimate earnings?

Bit of tourism and shopping. Still an MOD base of sorts, although much less important than it once was.

Worth a visit?

Most people would do it as a daytrip from the Costa del Sol, but not otherwise. Cruise ships stop there. It has an interesting airport, where you can walk across the runway!And a great local pidgin, Llanito.

Nul points?

Interestingly, on 24 May 2013 they were given entrance to UEFA, after about fifteen years of trying. They might well be the last micronation to come in though, as UEFA have changed the rules since they last applied. In purely footballing terms, they are apparently a little better than the Faroe Islands, so still pretty bad. One wag on the internet suggested that for their first qualifying game, they should face the Dutch, in Utrecht of course. They won't be facing the Spanish, in order to avoid football merging even further into politics.

Nice bit of rock?

Gibraltar is essentially one big rock, with a town at the bottom plus an airport on the flat bit. The rock itself is stuffed full of bunkers, apparently.

Iceland

An island way up North.

All Grown up?


Fully sovereign state, currently applying for entrance into the EU, but is in two minds about whether to continue.

How did they end up like that?

First discovered by the Vikings.

Financial monkey business?

Not so much in the way of tax evasion, but plenty of dodgy banks until 2008 when the country's entire banking system collapsed. Still has capital controls, and has still not compensated the investors in Icesave, for example.

Any legitimate earnings?

Tourism, fishing, US military base. Increasingly using cheap geothermal power to attract energy using industries.

Worth a visit?

Looks fascinating, I have to say. Geysers, glaciers...

Nul points?

Bad but not heroically bad football team.

Claim to fame?

Genealogy - ethnically homogenous population mostly descended from a few families.

Nice bit of rock?

Volcanic island, so not short of rock.

Isle of Man

An island in the Irish Sea. A Crown Dependency, like the Channel Islands.

All Grown up?


As a Crown Dependency, foreign and defence policy come from London, but for most of the rest it handles its own affairs.

How did they end up like that?

Well, the island passed through Viking and then Scottish or English ownership for hundreds of years. When the music stopped they ended up incorporated in neither one nor the other, but under the feudal lordship of the English crown. Possesses one of the oldest continually functioning parliaments in the world, the Tynwald.

Financial monkey business?

Low tax, offshore banking. Recent scandal around Kaupthing and Singer and Friedlander, where UK savers lost a lot of money in this bank based in the Isle of Man has damaged reputation.

Any legitimate earnings?

Still gets some regional tourism. Nice walking.

Worth a visit?

Nostalgic for the UK of the fifties? Then the Isle of Man is for you!

Nul points?

Most famous sportsman is Marc Cavendish, the 'Manx Missile', and the best sprinter the UK has had on a bike for a long while. Also has a very famous (and dangerous)motorbike race.

Claim to fame?

Manx Cats (no tails). Stood up to Jeremy Clarkson! Manx three legged symbol (Triskelion). Manx language as well, although this is critically endangered, unfortunately.

Nice bit of rock?

Fairly rocky island. Snaefell is the highest point, at 620 metres.

Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein is like a Swiss canton, yet somehow not part of Switzerland. In between Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

All Grown up?


Yes, basically. The Grand Duke takes most of the decisions, although there is a parliament of sorts. This has been a bit controversial in recent years, with the European Court of Human Rights having to remind the Grand Duke what a democracy is. Amusingly enough, joined the EEA (European Economic Area by accident without Switzerland. The Swiss voted no in the referendum of xxx, but by then the Liechtensteiners had already decided to join up.

How did they end up like that?

???

Financial monkey business?

Where the Swiss go to hide their money when they get bored at home. Was on original June 2000 OECD blacklist, removed in May 2009.

Any legitimate earnings?

???

Worth a visit?

Mainly for skiing or walking.

Nul points?

Atrocious football team. Only microstate apart from the Vatican to never enter the Eurovision song contest. They did try in 1976, but were handicapped by not having an eligible television company.

Nice bit of rock?

Not short of rock, certainly.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg is a constitutional Grand Duchy, fully democratic, strategically located between France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

All Grown up?


Definitely. Founding member of the EU, has its own foreign and defence policy and all that. Even its own language, Letzeburgish, which it very decently doesn't make the EU translate its documents into.

How did they end up like that?

???

Financial monkey business?

Innocent souls, visiting a doctor or dentist in Belgium, have long wondered why they have to pay in cash, even in a massive hospital. Suffice to say that Luxembourg may have something to do with this. For decades, it seemed like half the professionals in Belgium were heading down the motorway once a month to hide their cash in a Luxemburgish bank. But it's changing - Belgians have been confessing in record numbers to their dirty money in various amnesties, so perhaps the pilgrimage down the E411 motorway is coming to an end?

Any legitimate earnings?

Lots of European civil servants. Some farming and forestry. Lorry tolls. But mainly finance.

Worth a visit?

If you're in the area. Can easily be combined with visits to Maastricht and Aachen, both of which are interesting and historical, or alternatively it's on the way to the Moselle or Alsace-Lorraine. Nice bridges.

Nul points?

Always seem to be playing England at football. Eurovision stalwarts, and frequent winners for a while - no win since 1983 though.

Claim to fame?

Schengen Agreement on the free movement of people was signed in Schengen, a village outside Luxembourg city. Met Kyoto Protocol obligations forever by closing its one steel plant. Lots of ambitious politicians who head off to Brussels to make their name. Comment of current Prime Minister on current European Commissioner: "Luxembourg is too small for both of us".

Nice bit of rock?

Sort of. Historic Luxembourg is in a ravine, bizarrely. Never quite understood how that worked from a medieval defence point of view.

Malta

An island in the Eastern Mediterranean.

All Grown up?


Yes, sovereign state, member of the EU.

How did they end up like that?

Malta has a fascinating history...

Financial monkey business?

Not particularly, people used to go to Cyprus for that kind of thing...

Any legitimate earnings?

Tourism. Very sunny place, Malta, with lots of interesting historical things to visit as well.

Worth a visit?

Definitely.

Nul points?

Bad football team, but not the worst. Has entered the Eurovision song contest 26 times without ever winning, but wasn't helped in the early days by having to sing in Maltese...

Claim to fame?

Won the George Cross during the second world war, due to the heroic resistance of the local population under heavy bombardment. Speaks a Western Semitic language, so you can pray to Allah in church!

Nice bit of rock?

Rather a rocky island, on the whole.

Monaco

A bay and a hillside on the Mediterranean, East of Nice and close to Italy.

All Grown up?


Yes, a fully sovereign state in theory. Military protection provided by France.

How did they end up like that?

Been more or less a state under the Grimaldis for about seven hundred years. Has been under French rule and Italian rule under occasions though, and has even had a revolution, in 1910!

Financial monkey business?

Well, there is a reason why all those tennis, golf and motor racing stars 'live' in Monaco, and it isn't the sea views. Monaco was on the original June 2000 OECD blacklist, removed in May 2009. Very low personal tax rates for everyone except the French. Why not the French? Well, when Prince Rainier first came up with the low tax wheeze in the sixties, Charles De Gaulle rapidly foresaw that he was going to lose a lot of French income tax through the rich and famous simply changing their address on the Côte d'Azur. So, he pointed out that if Monaco fancied shipping in all their food and other necessities into the marina because the land border was closed, that was fine by him, and he even sent a few customs officials to stop cars to make the point! A French exemption deal was found and a new treaty was signed in 1962.

Any legitimate earnings?

Some tourism, especially day trippers. The casino (Monte Carlo) is and always has been rather profitable. Quite a few industry conferences now. But mostly servicing the lifestyle of the international playboy.

Worth a visit?

If you like to see how the very rich live and play, maybe. Kind of interesting as an exercise in town planning - every square centimetre is built on. Public lifts! (It's very hilly). Like most of that part of the French coast, must have been pretty before they constructed flats over it.

Nul points?

Funnily enough, the best football team of the lot, but they don't play international fixtures. Instead they play in the French Premier League, which handily allows for the recruitment of non-Monegasques, thus improving the standard somewhat. Also perhaps the most famous Formula One event in the world, with a street circuit, and a good standard tennis championship. Lots of imported culture.

Claim to fame?

Plenty. The Grimaldis themselves have done their bit to sell a few papers, between the tragic road accident of Princess Grace, to the much funnier scandals with Princess Stephanie and various circus performers, or Prince Albert and his allegedly want away bride.

Nice bit of rock?

The Prince lives on 'the rock', in a palace. Under the rock go many road tunnels, and the hospital is apparently underground as well.

San Marino

A mountain top near to Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

All Grown up?


Yes, a fully sovereign state, although geographically enclaved within Italy.

How did they end up like that?

Much cunning! After the usual medieval shenanigans, One of the Regents of San Marino started a correspondance with Napoleon and managed to ingratiate himself to the extent that Boney left them alone. Then, earned the gratitude of Garibaldi by acting as a refuge for Italian free thinkers prior to 1870, therefore not incorporated forcibly into Italy. That's how to do it! Also a long democratic tradition.

Financial monkey business?

Lives off the finance industry. Not hit the newspaper headlines recently though.

Any legitimate earnings?

Tourism.

Worth a visit?

Looks quite fun, to be fair. More fun than Rimini, certainly.

Nul points?

Another bad football team, although many England fans will remember them with a shudder due to the game where they took the lead after only seven seconds! They still lost though. Used to have a grand prix event, although it was really an excuse to give Italy a second race.

Nice bit of rock?

Has 'Guardians of the Rock' with a very snazzy uniform. Palace is literally on top of a mountain.

The Vatican

In the centre of Rome, where all the roads lead to.

All Grown up?


Yes, a fully sovereign state, although obviously dependant on Italy for many basic things.

How did they end up like that?

Long story. Originally, the Pope had a rather large temporal empire to go with his spiritual power. This was called the Papal States, and was still quite a significant part of Italy. This was cut down significantly under Italian unification. Current arrangement is codified by the Lateran Treaty, signed by Mussolini and the pope in 1929, and

Financial monkey business?

Yes, but not of the tax avoidance variety. More murky dealings and suspicious suicides. Banco Ambrosiano...

Any legitimate earnings?

Lots. The collection plate, obviously, but many other investments.

Worth a visit?

Yes, Sistine Chapel, Swiss Guard and all that. Don't forget your trousers though. Very crowded in the summer.

Nul points?

No sporting or cultural representatives as such, although Pope John-Paul II was famously an excellent goalkeeper. You can't help but think that a choir of Papal nuns would be a shoe-in for the Eurovision, but they don't enter.

Nice bit of rock?

Plenty of shiny marble and cobblestones.

Any conclusions to be drawn?

If you want to be a successful country despite being the size of a thimble, a few things seem to help:


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