Microstates

A microstate or ministate is a sovereign state having a very small population or very small land area, and usually both. The meanings of “state” and “very small” are not well-defined in international law. Recent attempts, since 2010, to define microstates have focused on identifying political entities with unique qualitative features linked to their geographic or demographic limitations. According to a qualitative definition, microstates are: “modern protected states, i.e. sovereign states that have been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of sovereignty to larger powers in exchange for benign protection of their political and economic viability against their geographic or demographic constraints.”
In line with this and most other definitions, examples of microstates include Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, the Cook Islands, Niue, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The smallest political unit recognized as a sovereign state is Vatican City, with 842 citizens as of July 2013 and an area of only 44 hectares (110 acres). However, some scholars dispute qualifying Vatican City as a state, arguing that it does not meet the “traditional criteria of statehood” and that the “special status of the Vatican City is probably best regarded as a means of ensuring that the Pope can freely exercise his spiritual functions, and in this respect is loosely analogous to that of the headquarters of international organisations.”

Microstates are distinct from micronations, which are not recognized as sovereign states. Special territories without full sovereignty, such as the British Crown Dependencies, the Chinese Special Administrative Regions, and overseas territories of Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Australia, Norway, the United States, and the United Kingdom, are also not considered microstates.

Most scholars identify microstates by using a quantitative threshold and applying it to either one variable (such as the size of its territory or population) or a composite of different variables. While it is agreed that microstates are the smallest of all states, there is no consensus on what variable (or variables) or what cut-off point should be used to determine which political units should be labelled as “microstates” (as opposed to small “normal” states).


 

Qualitative Definitions

Vatican City

In response to the problems associated with the quantitative definitions of microstates, some academics have suggested finding states with unique features linked to their geographic or demographic smallness.
Newer approaches have proposed looking at the behaviour or capacity to operate in the international arena in order to determine which states should deserve the microstate label.
Yet, it has been argued that such approaches could lead to either confusing microstates with weak states (or failed states) or relying too much on subjective perceptions.

Microstates as modern protected states

In order to address both the problems with quantitative approaches and with definitions based on qualitative features, it has been argued that a useful and meaningful way to isolate microstates from other types of states, would be to see them as “modern protected states”.
According to the definition proposed by Dumienski (2014): “microstates are modern protected states, i.e. sovereign states that have been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of sovereignty to larger powers in exchange for benign protection of their political and economic viability against their geographic or demographic constraints.”
Adopting this approach permits limiting the number of microstates and separating them from both small states and autonomies or dependencies.
Examples of microstates understood as modern protected states include such states as Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco, Niue, Andorra, the Cook Islands or Palau.

Historical anomalies and aspirant states

A small number of tiny sovereign political units are founded on historical anomalies or eccentric interpretations of the law. These types of states, often labelled as “microstates,” are usually located on small (usually disputed) territorial enclaves, generate limited economic activity founded on tourism and philatelic and numismatic sales, and are tolerated or ignored by the nations from which they claim to have seceded.

One example is the Republic of Indian Stream, now the town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire—a geographic anomaly left unresolved by the Treaty of Paris that ended the U.S. Revolutionary War, and claimed by both the U.S. and Canada. Between 1832 and 1835, the area’s residents refused to acknowledge either claimant.

Another example is the Cospaia Republic, which became independent through a treaty error and survived from 1440 to 1826. Its independence made it important in the introduction of tobacco cultivation to Italy.

Another is Couto Misto, disputed by Spain and Portugal, that operated as a sovereign state in its own right until the 1864 Treaty of Lisbon that partitioned the territory, with the largest part becoming part of Spain.

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