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Happiest alone: Europe’s semi-independent microstates

  • Written by  Vitali Vitaliev
  • Published in Places
A view of the islands that make up Sark from the mouth of a sea cave A view of the islands that make up Sark from the mouth of a sea cave
30 Sep
Some of the quirkiest geopolitical oddities are  Europe’s semi-independent microstates (SIMs). Vitali Vitaliev takes a tour

So-called semi-independent microstates, or SIMs (abbreviation author’s own) are less familiar to most of us than Europe’s fully sovereign microstates (which include Liechtenstein, San Marino and Andorra). Most of the existing SIMs, which are as different as they can be from each other, are shrouded in mystery: there is no clear understanding of their background, their history or their modus operandi. Their very existence in our increasingly globalised environment is, in itself, a geopolitical curiosity.

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The main distinction between a SIM and a fully independent microstate is that, despite being in possession of important elements of statehood, such as territory, population and government (complete with executive branches, legislature, judiciary, [often] police and other trappings of independence), SIMs are still under the sovereignty of other countries or monarchs.

American writer Thomas M Eccardt referred to SIMs as small countries ‘without independence or recognition’. According to another definition, coined by George Sidiropoulos of the Department of Geography, at the University of the Aegean, SIMs are ‘those microstates which are subject to some form of independence or dependence’. In his article Geography of Micro-States: Main Arising Issues, Sidiropoulos names and maps 48 such entities globally, with an average population of 54,019. Eight lie in Europe: Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Aland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Bailiwick of Guernsey (with three separate sub-jurisdictions: Guernsey, Alderney and Sark), Isle of Man, Jersey and Mount Athos. All united by self-governance, each possesses unique competencies and powers for its own highly peculiar traits and circumstances.

The male-only mountain

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The mountain path was steep and narrow. Strewn with rough, shapeless rocks and mule droppings, it wound mercilessly uphill along the edge of an abyss. Cicadas chirred deafeningly, as if laughing. The white-hot disc of the midday sun, surrounded by fluffy clouds, glared from the blue Hellenic sky. Puffing like an early steam engine, I trudged higher and higher up the track, scaring tiny, agile lizards. My feet felt stiff and alien, as if I was walking on stilts, and streams of hot, salty sweat were pouring down my forehead.

At last, when I thought I wouldn’t be able to take another step for a million pounds, I looked up and saw him. In his monastic klobuk hat, he was standing on the path, blue robes and black beard flying in the breeze, and pointing at the square building of the nearby skete, resembling an obscure Cyrillic letter. In loose, worn sandals, he could have been mistaken for a mirage, or an Old Testament apparition, were it not for the inscription on the fringe of the grey satin trousers showing from under his habit: ‘Property of the Mount Sinai Military Hospital.’

WEBAthos 4A monk feeds a mule outside Grigoriou Monastery on Mount Athos

This was Father Spiridon, the chief monk of the skete of St Anna, a small and secluded monastery. He brought two mules, one for each of us, and for the last several hundred metres we rode on their uncomplaining backs.

This two-hour climb was by far the hardest part of a visit to Mount Athos, also known as the Holy Mountain – the semi-independent Orthodox monastic microstate on the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece. On my first visit in 1993, I was one of the very first British journalists to set foot in its territory: a foreigner had to wait for several months to receive a diamonitirion – an entry permit resembling an honorary diploma (I framed it on return) signed by all the members of the Holy Synod, the region’s own elected government. Subject to annual rotation, the existence of the synod makes Mount Athos one of the oldest democracies in the world, although one important element of a democratic state has always been missing – female suffrage. The reason? A total lack of women.

WEBMt AthosThe Monastery of Dionysiou on the peninsula of Athos

Mount Athos, while hugely restrictive to male visitors, remains firmly closed to any females – not just humans, but also animals (only a couple of sketes have special permits to keep hens, whose eggs they use for mixing paint). This unique local law is tirelessly enforced by the mountain state’s monastic police force – the Serdaris. From the year 1006, no ‘smooth-faced person’ has stepped onto its shores (baring one incident in 2008 when four Moldavian women were abandoned there by human traffickers). 

The earliest records suggest that the first hermits, seeking refuge from the Iconoclast Byzantine emperors, came to Mount Athos in the eighth century. In 1060, a monastic republic was established there as a self-administered area of Greece. At that time, it had 180 abbeys. Today, some 2,500 monks and hermits live across 20 large monasteries (17 Greek, one Russian, one Bulgarian and one Serbian) and lots of smaller ones: abbeys, sketes, cells and huts – all under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Each larger monastery resembles a fortified medieval town, with turrets, moats and thick stone walls. 

There are two main types of monastic ‘regime’ on Mount Athos – the cenobitic, or communal, where everything is shared among the brethren, and the idiorhythmic, where each monk clothes and feeds himself.

Time stands still on the Holy Mountain. The clocks in some of the monasteries are set to midnight at sunset. In others, they are set to midday at dawn. This makes fixing any kind of appointment on Mount Athos a pretty hopeless business, which doesn’t seem to bother the monks, whose only appointments are with God.

A feudal time-warp in the channel

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It is not common knowledge that until recently, the UK had the world’s last fully functioning feudal state right on its doorstep. Not part of the UK but – like all other Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – a part of Great Britain outside the United Kingdom, the Island of Sark, population 500, is the Commonwealth’s smallest SIM. It makes its own laws and manages its own money. Administered by the Seigneur, a hereditary ruler who held the island for the British Crown, Sark was the last remaining feudal community in the Western world until 2008, when the islanders voted for democracy and the Seigneur’s powers were significantly curtailed. The Seigneur, however, still pays an inflation-free tax to the Queen of £1.79 a year – a more significant sum 500 years ago when it first came into force and constituted ‘one 20th part of a knight’s fee’.

Cars are banned from Sark and planes are not allowed to land there, or to fly over the island below 2,000 feet. The place is engulfed by a strange quiet, broken only by the wailing of wind.

WEBSarkCars are banned from Sark and planes not allowed to land on the island

The island still abides by medieval laws, one of which says that ‘unspayed bitches are not allowed to be kept on the Island, except by the Seigneur’. This law was adopted during the 17th century, when Chief Pleas (the island’s parliament) decided that too many dogs could cause problems with sheep farming.

‘Yes, our island is bitch-free,’ Michael Beaumont, the previous Seigneur and the father of the incumbent one (Christopher Beaumont), who inherited his estate from the Dame of Sark, told me with a smile during my first visit to the island in 1996.

Another law states that 40 local family heads, including the Seigneur, are obliged to keep muskets to protect the island from invaders.

A modest-looking brochure, the Constitution of Sark, reveals much about the island. One of its articles states that, under Norman custom, a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he thinks is an infringement of his rights. At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord’s Prayer in French and cry out in patois: ‘Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!’ At which point, all actions must cease until the matter is heard by the court.

The Haro cry didn’t help the islanders when Sark was occupied by a garrison of 300 Germans during the Second World War. Nevertheless, not a single shot was fired from either side and the locals still refer to that period as a ‘model occupation’. One remembered how the German commandant of Sark refused to take any action against local residents who defied the occupation authorities by keeping short-wave radios at their houses – an offence punishable by death anywhere else in occupied Europe.

In 1990, the island experienced another foreign invasion, albeit on a much smaller scale. It was taken over – single-handedly – by a drunken Frenchman, André Gardes, who landed on Sark with a semi-automatic weapon. In a ‘manifesto’, written in broken English and pinned on the village noticeboard, he announced that he was taking control of the island. Having stated his intentions, he retired for a refill to a village pub, where he was apprehended and disarmed by the part-time constable (head of Sark’s part-time police force) and frogmarched to the island’s miniature prison, which consisted of one small, windowless cell.

WEBSark3Cars are banned from Sark and planes not allowed to land on the island

The constable soon came to regret his bravery, for another island law made him responsible for feeding prison inmates and the Frenchman proved to be voracious. Luckily, two days is the maximum jail term in Sark and in due course the gluttonous invader was deported to his homeland.

Exempt from the UK’s social security and health schemes, the island takes good care of itself. Special community funds help young people through school and university, pay medical bills for the sick and provide pensions for the old. 

While in Sark, I noticed that many of its residents had a peculiar twinkle in their eyes. ‘What is it?’ I asked Jennifer Cochrane, a local writer. 

‘It is contentment,’ she replied. ‘We Sarkese are a fairly fortunate lot!’

The nation that scored

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Of all the football-loving nations, it is the Faroe Islands, a semi-independent state of 50,000 people and 80,000 sheep, that exhibits a commitment to the sport beyond all others. The tiny archipelago of 18 barren volcanic islands in the North Atlantic has more than 500 men’s and 50 women’s football teams. All of them, including the country’s national squad, are amateurs, playing football after (and sometimes before, but never instead of) work.

A sand or artificial-turf football pitch can be found in every single village, no matter how small. To build such spaces in the Faroes, where the only natural flat surface is reserved for the country’s one airport, is not an easy task. In many cases, nearby mountains have had to be excavated by the determined villagers.

By far the most famous day in the history of Faroese football, if not in the whole of the country’s history, was 12 September 1990, when the Faroese national team of amateurs defeated Austria 1:0 in their first European Championship qualifying game.

Brian Okpala (right), a Faroe Islands player  kicks the ballA football field near the village of Eidi that is also used as a camping site 

The victory, which was later labelled one of the biggest shocks in international football, was achieved on a neutral field in Landskrona, Sweden, although officially it was the Faroes’ home game: the other three members of the qualifying group refused point-blank to play in the Faroes, despite the fact that the first real grass pitch (it cost the country one more mountain) was built specifically for the tournament in the village of Toftir. The reverberations of the 63rd-minute victorious shot were heard throughout the world and in the Faroes, a national holiday was declared.

In Tórshavn, the picturesque Faroese capital, I had a chance to sit in the Speaker’s chair in the Løgting, the Faroese ancient parliament, the origins of which can be traced back more than 1,000 years, when a shipload of Vikings stumbled upon the umbrella-shaped Faroese archipelago on their way to Iceland. According to some sources, they were simply too seasick to continue their journey and chose to settle on the islands, driving out the wandering Irish monks who had lived there since the seventh century AD.

The Løgting, where, in line with the Home Rule Act of 1948, only Faroese internal matters are supposed to be debated by 32 local MPs (foreign policy and executive power are in the hands of the Danish crown), sits in a black log cabin with a turf roof in the centre of Tórshavn. All procedures are conducted in the Faroese language – a derivative of old Norse and West Norwegian, now recognised as the main language of the islands. Until 1938, the Danes treated the Faroese language as a small regional dialect and it was forbidden to teach it in schools. For centuries, it remained a popular spoken tongue only; there was no recognised Faroese literature until 1890. 

Brian Okpala (right), a Faroe Islands player  kicks the ballBrian Okpala (right), a Faroe Islands player kicks the ball

This is no longer the case. One of the most amazing sides of modern Faroese culture is the number of books (about 150 titles a year) written and published in the native language. Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and even Homer’s hexameters have been translated into Faroese by local enthusiasts. The mini-state also publishes several daily newspapers in Faroese. 

The biggest problem the Faroese faced when trying to recreate their old tongue and turn it into a written language was the absence of words for such modern notions as ‘television’, ‘video’, ‘computer’, ‘compact disc’ and so on. Instead of using foreign borrowings, they decided to come up with some genuine Faroese neologisms. Thus a computer became telda – from tal (number); a computer screen became skiggi – the word for a sheep’s stomach stretched across the smoke-holes of houses in the time before glass windows; and a compact disc became flöga – from the round wooden blocks put under haystacks.

That passion for the preservation of local languages and culture is perhaps the most distinguishing trait of all existing SIMs. Unperturbed by the ‘global village’ and ‘unified Europe’ rhetoric, most of them stay clear of pacts, leagues and alliances, simply because they are quite happy to be on their own in our conflict-ridden and chaotic world – striving for integration, and yet increasingly divided.

Akrotiri and Dhekelia

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The British Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia (population 15,500) comprise those parts of Cyprus that stayed under British jurisdiction and remained British sovereign territory when the 1960 Treaty of Establishment created the independent Republic of Cyprus. They constitute a semi-independent British Overseas Territory, under the governance of an administrator, who at the same time is the commander of the British Forces Cyprus. The bases remain formally a part of the UK, but can only be used for military and not commercial or any other purposes. It is the only part of the UK where the euro, and not the pound, is in circulation.

Radio towers at the British military base of AkrotiriRadio towers at the British military base of Akrotiri

The bases have their own legal system, distinct from both the UK and Cyprus, but keep, as close as possible, to the laws of the latter. The Court of the Sovereign Base Area is concerned with non-military offences committed by any person within Akrotiri and Dhekelia. Law and order is maintained by the Sovereign Base Areas Police, while military law is upheld by the Cyprus Joint Police Unit. There is no specific citizenship available for the bases.

Åland Islands

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The autonomous (semi-independent) Swedish-speaking Finnish province of Åland is located in the Baltic Sea, at the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia between mainland Finland and Sweden. The Åland archipelago consists of more than 6,500 islands – most are rocky islets, but more than 60 are inhabited. There are around 30,000 residents, who make their living primarily from tourism, maritime occupations and banking. 

A red windmill in the Åland IslandsA red windmill in the Åland Islands

Åland’s autonomous status means that it has its own government, language and cultural policy. Since 1922, the country has had its own parliament, as well as a representative in the Finnish national parliament. Finnish legislation applies to foreign policy, civil and criminal law, customs and monetary policy. Finnish sovereignty is now perceived as benevolent and even beneficial by most of the islanders.

 The Isle of Man

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The Isle of Man is a self-governing British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea, with a population of 85,000, its own tricameral parliament, the Tynwald (the world’s oldest continuously operating democratic assembly), its own language and legislation. The state only fairly recently legalised same-sex relationships, made seat-belts compulsory for motorists and outlawed birching as punishment, but still has not introduced speed limits on the roads outside its capital, Douglas. Once a major maritime power, the island governs its own domestic affairs and raises its own revenue, but makes a financial contribution to the UK for its defence and international representation.

Apart from having a well-functioning financial system and being, like most offshore British dependencies, a tax haven, the Isle of Man has a rapidly expanding manufacturing sector, with a number of precision-engineering, aerospace, IT and other companies, largely responsible for the microstate’s 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth and the fact that its per capita income is almost twice as high as in the UK. 

The seaside town of Peel on the Isle of ManThe seaside town of Peel on the Isle of Man

The island’s motto, represented by the three-legged Manx symbol, or Triskeles, is Quocunque Jeceris Stabit, which, translated from Latin, means ‘whichever way you throw me I stand’, or – in a somewhat looser version – ‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down’. 

There is no consensus as to the origins of the island’s name, but all connections with the human male are irrelevant. ‘Man’ in this case originates either from Mannanin Beg Mchir, the legendary wizard-king of the Vikings, or from Mona, the name given to the island by Julius Caesar. 

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