Apr 27, 2015 | 16:19 GMT

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Longevity and Influence in Europe's Microstates

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The History and Longevity of Europe's Microstates

Europe is home to the five smallest continental microstates in the world: Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra. These states have been autonomous or independent for most of their centurieslong history and have rarely been invaded. More often than not, these states were situated in places unattractive to larger surrounding states and lacking in natural resources. As a result, political and military powers left them alone, sometimes for centuries. Their existence today is the result of at least two key factors: geography and political genius.

This is the case in Andorra, which in the late 13th century agreed to be co-ruled by the Count of Foix in southern France and the bishop of Urgell in Catalonia. This solution solved the conflict between the French and the Catalan forces over Andorra's territory. Eventually Andorra evolved into a parliamentary democracy, but the aforementioned agreement survives to this day. The bishop of Urgell and the French president serve as official co-princes of Andorra, which ironically makes socialist Francois Hollande an actual monarch, at least to the Andorrans.

Europe's microstates have also received help from well-placed allies in high positions. This is particularly true of San Marino, to which Pope Pius II granted extra lands in the mid-15th century. This grant allowed the country to expand its domain beyond Mount Titan. San Marino then signed a treaty of protection with Pope Clement VIII in 1603 and ultimately survived the process of Italian unification because it spent decades befriending and sheltering Italian patriots, including Giuseppe Garibaldi, during times of conflict.

In other cases, the survival of these microstates is linked to the ability of a single family to climb to the top. This is the case with Liechtenstein, a country that takes its name from the family that governs it. The Liechtenstein family is originally from Lower Austria and was wealthy enough to acquire small plots of land across Central Europe but not powerful enough to be a decision-maker within the Holy Roman Empire.

Having highly placed friends is important for microstates, and no institution has friends in higher places that the Roman Catholic Church's central governing body, the Vatican. The seat of the Vatican, Vatican City, is different from Europe's other microstates. To begin with, it is a sacerdotal-monarchical state ruled by the bishop of Rome, the pope.

The irony behind the prolonged existence of Europe's microstates is that they have never been truly independent. With only geography on their side, these countries have traditionally had to adapt their national strategies to events beyond their control. Their main challenge in the coming decades will be to continue this never-ending process of adaptation, especially as the rest of the Continent fragments.

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