The franc is gone, and so is the pfennig. Yet in the ancient cobblestoned streets of the Principality of Seborga, sprawling over 2.8 square miles of what could easily be mistaken for northwestern Italy, the nation’s 362 citizens continue to teem and bustle, exchanging the world’s most valuable unit of currency, the luigino (1L = $6), for goods and services, genuflecting before their monarch, His Tremendousness Prince Giorgio, should he happen to walk past. In Britain and Germany, farmers and grocers sleep fitfully, gnawed at by the EU directive that all bananas must be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature” or otherwise be classified as “Class 2” produce. But in, or on, the Principality of Sealand, Prince Roy and Princess Joan sleep deeply, secure in the knowledge that, if they ever did start selling bananas from their rusting, tennis court–size World War II antiaircraft platform anchored six miles off the coast of southern England, they could sell blackened ones twisted in knots with perfect impunity.
For such is one of the less-explored paradoxes of this moment in European history. As recently as 10 years ago, with the EU already in full swing, with nations as mighty as France and Germany voluntarily abolishing their own currencies for the sake of continental unity, it was hard to see a future for Sealand, and Seborga, and the dozens of other European “nations” with their own stamps and national anthems. If the Irish were prepared to stop smoking in bars and paying for their drinks with punts, what chance did the Republic of Saugeais, in eastern France, have of continuing to speak Saugeais and spending the sol?
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the future. Thanks to the Internet, and the EU’s bureaucratic teething troubles, not to mention the deeply resonant and resilient idea of nationhood itself, Europe’s dozens of quirky micronations are not only still around, they are flourishing. What’s more, they may yet have a hand in shaping the destiny of Europe as a whole.
We’re not talking about places like Andorra, Liechtenstein, and Monaco: the states that perhaps most readily come to mind when you hear the term micronation. These mountainous, glamorous principalities enjoyed some fairly prosperous decades there at the tail end of the 20th century, as word got around that, as well as having a picturesque central fountain and a monarch in a feathered hat, they were clinging to adorably quaint attitudes about taxation and proper banking practices. But these days that party is over, or ending, as the newly organized European superstate is demanding the loopholes be closed. For those slightly larger but still ridiculously small states who managed to talk their way into the European Union—your Maltas, your Luxembourgs—integration has not been the one-way ticket to the Majors they were perhaps expecting. As Professor Diana Panke of University College Dublin tells me, just because you’re allowed to sit at the negotiating table with Germany, France, and Britain doesn’t mean that you, Malta, are going to be listened to. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Strictly speaking, though, nations such as Monaco and San Marino are microstates. The term micronation, in its proper usage, encompasses the wide and disparate range of statelike entities even smaller than Andorra and Liechtenstein (the latter nation can, for the record, be rented, all of it, for private functions). Among them are old, tiny feudal states like the aforementioned Seborga, national motto Sub umbra sedi (Sit in the shade), which maintained its sovereignty throughout the second millennium by being so small that sloppy real estate clerks repeatedly forgot to include it in land-transfer documents—just as they somehow overlooked what is now the Kingdom of Romkerhall, a single, elaborate hunting lodge in Germany’s Oker Valley that once belonged to King George V of England. But the term also denotes more modern, more fanciful territories, of possibly dubious legality, such as the Republic of Kugelmugel, a 25-foot-diameter sphere founded, and built, near Vienna in 1976 by its still-reigning president, Edwin Lipburger; and the young nation of Lovely, inside the London apartment of British comedian Danny Wallace, who founded Lovely in 2005 for the express purpose of filming a BBC program titled How to Start Your Own Country.
And while it may seem fatuous in the extreme to list a made-up, intentionally humorous country like Lovely beside an actual, thousand-year-old principality like Seborga, it is precisely the blurring of that distinction that has occasioned a new wave of interest in Europe’s micronations. Venture onto the Internet these days and you’ll find people starting their own countries left and right. And while the majority of these online micronations are rather shabby exercises in narcissistic time-killing—here’s looking at you, the Flying Islands of Jasonia—others maintain online presences indistinguishable from those of actual tiny nations. Why?Because it’s fun, people are remembering. Designing a flag, making stamps with your face on them, composing a hard-to-sing anthem to your own uniqueness and indomitability, arguing over whose turn it is to be king...these childish, recreational aspects of statehood were largely and understandably forgotten during the geopolitical horror of the 20th century, amid the fascist corruption of all the trappings of nationhood.
But in 21st-century Europe, where 493 million people continue to endure what has to be the slowest, most complicated, and least exciting birth of a superpower ever recorded, there is a new and deepening hunger for the more whimsical aspects of national identity, and it is finding an outlet in a new affection for, and fascination with, those quirky micronations that so recently seemed so doomed. The spherical Republic of Kugelmugel, whose President Lipburger was thrown in jail in 1979 for 10 weeks shortly after the nation’s founding, now sits in one of Vienna’s public parks, a source of both pride and revenue to neighboring-in-every-direction Austria. In 2006, Lonely Planet included Kugelmugel, Sealand, Lovely, and the rest of them in the world’s first-ever micronational travel guide. And in tiny, proud Seborga, pockets bulging with luiginos, His Tremendousness makes his way along the cobbles, singing to himself, in the words of the old patriotic hymn,
Ti amo mio Seborga
Con tutto mio cuor.
Bruno Maddox is from the great nation of Wales.