From One So Small

“But seriously what if Spin Doctors’ "Two Princes” is really a treatise on the dual leadership of the principality of Andorra?“


…Quoting one’s own Twitter feed on one’s own blog might be the very pinnacle of web-enabled narcissism.  But while it took a good deal of effort to craft a comprehensible 140-character pun encompassing both 90s jam-pop and the strange political institutions of Europe’s sixth-smallest nation, my point in using it isn’t to proclaim my own greatness but rather to make the point that Andorra is fucking crazy, you guys.


As it happens, pretty much all of the European microstates are fairly mind-boggling, although Andorra is by far the strangest of the strange (although if we weren’t all so acculturated to the insane particularities of Vatican City, that might not be the case…).  The hereditary monarchies of Lichtenstein and Monaco wield huge amounts of power.  All of them are known tax havens, and though they claim staunch independence on matters of tax law they are all also dependent upon neighboring foreign powers for defense and currency.  By per capita numbers, they are all among the richest countries in the world, and also among the least influential.  They use the Euro by special agreement but show no interest in modifying their government structures to meet Eurozone membership requirements – why, recently the British Channel Island of Sark had to alter its constitution only after being taken before the European human rights commission, because its centuries-old feudal traditions were in violation of basic human rights law.


(There’s a really fun story about Sark: during WWII, all of the Channel Islands were overtaken by Nazi forces, and while tragedies occurred on the more populated islands – Jews deported and killed from Jersey and Guernsey – Sark’s tiny population (600 people) was entirely Christian, and came away relatively unscathed.  In fact, when the Nazis first landed, the seigneur of Sark had them follow ancient custom and sign in to the island’s guest book.  Cuz even Nazis gotta have manners sometimes.)


Of all the microstates, San Marino is the most fully democratic – it claims to be the oldest constitutional republic in the world, dating from 1600 – and Andorra the most bizarre.  How bizarre is it?  Here’s a pop quiz: how many countries in the world have a Catholic cleric as their head of state?  Just Vatican City, right?


Nope!  While the absolute authority of the papal monarchy in Vatican City is unique, its clerical nature isn’t entirely.  Andorra has been ruled for hundreds of years by two princes, one of whom is the bishop of Urguell.  Before modern definitions of "France” and “Spain” this made more sense, as Andorra – like Urguell – is located within the contested border region known as Catalunya.  But now the bishopric of Urguell is outside the borders of Andorra, so one of their heads of state is not even a citizen.  Neither, as it happens, is the other: by a series of medieval transfers of title the other princely right of Andorra was awarded to the kings of Navarre, a title incorporated by the kings of France, which eventually – at the formation of the French Republic – transmuted to the president of France.  So the democratically elected leader of one country automatically assumes a monarchial title in another.  Until the mid-nineties, Andorra still practiced the medieval habit of paying tribute to its leaders: to the president of France it gave $460 each odd-numbered year, and on even-numbered years it paid to the Bishop of Urguell $12, six hams, six cheeses, and six live chickens.  This tradition ended only twenty years ago.


What I find so particularly fascinating about the microstates is how well they illuminate Western hypocrisy about good governance.  We find backwardness in Africa and Latin America and the Middle East but never on our own doorstep.  Americans can be particularly prone to such exceptional thinking: we might consider the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom to be an outdated colonial relic (Why the hell do Canada and Australia like the Queen so damn much?!) but rarely recall that the United States is, in fact, head of its own commonwealth of nations, places like the US Virgin Islands, the Marianas, Guam, and Puerto Rico, our own colonialist legacy still unfolding each day.


Democracy, says the West: democracy is the natural vanishing point of civilization, where we are all headed.  But to proclaim self-determination and republicanism so proudly without acknowledging the complex web of governmental structures we ourselves participate in, undemocratic historical artifacts out of step with the ideals we purport to impart (need we discuss why the residents of Washington, DC, are disenfranchised from the national legislature?), blinds us to our own archaic holdovers and unjust political deals.  Democracy is not as straightforward as it seems; not in theory, not in practice, not in history, not in export, not in Europe and not in the US.


Fortunately, change is not an impossible task.  We can always stop giving cheese to the bishop, if only we decide to do so.

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