When Paddy Roy Bates claimed an abandoned military fort as a present for his wife Joan, the principality of Sealand was born. There was no fanfare or paperwork, Bates simply created a micronation: an “entity that claims to be an independent state but whose sovereignty is not recognized by the international community.” Micronations might seem inconsequential. After all, what can these polities actually accomplish if they aren’t recognized on the international stage? However, recognition from other countries is only part of the puzzle of statehood. Though tiny and charming on the surface, micronations actually possess a startling significance: They jeopardize legal definitions of statehood and may bolster other claims to sovereignty around the world.
Some micronations are difficult to take seriously. For example, the Republic of Molossia, located in northern Nevada, was originally founded as a joke. Even more preposterous is the territory of Elgaland-Vargaland, which doesn’t actually exist; it claims sovereignty over “all border territories between all countries on earth” in addition to “mental and perceptive territories.” However, a quick glance at the websites of these countries reveals that they are entirely serious endeavors. In the eyes of their leaders, micronations are legitimate spaces, despite their portrayal by the media as trivial and silly. Some micronations thrive or under the veneer of comedy. Meanwhile, others are quietly building their international credibility.
One micronation that stands above the rest in terms of size and ostensible legitimacy is Liberland. Liberland existed as a no man’s land on the border of Croatia and Serbia for decades until it was finally proclaimed a free republic in 2015. Boasting seven square kilometers of land, it is territorially larger than both Monaco and the Vatican and seven times more populous than San Marino, a microstate in Italy. Liberland is essentially a libertarian haven. With no taxation, stringent property rights, and self-determined individual rights, it is a model micronation—one possessed with concrete rules and regulations and a firm sense of national purpose. Micronations of Liberland’s size and scope present an interesting conundrum for legal theories of statehood.
There are two reigning theories of statehood in international law: constitutive and declarative. The constitutive theory claims that a state must be recognized as sovereign by other states in order to attain full legitimacy. Under this theory, micronations certainly fail. By definition, micronations aren’t recognized by the international community; otherwise, they would be “microstates,” which are similarly small in size but enjoy international acknowledgment of their legitimacy. However, the declarative theory of statehood first articulated in the 1933 Montevideo Convention stipulates that states must have “a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and a capacity to enter into relations with other states.” Under this standard, most micronations pass the statehood test. This fact carries a big implication: Since the declarative theory applies to micronations but the constitutive theory doesn’t, these polities destabilize the entire legal framework surrounding statehood.
The very existence of micronations threatens the constitutive theory’s legal legitimacy. Short of forcible reconciliation with their original country through military invasion or legal challenge, these places are states, whether or not they are recognized under the constitutive theory of statehood. Without international recognition, micronations will continue to struggle to connect with the outside world via trade or alliances with other states. However, micronations are already learning to rely on each other, creating networks and forums to discuss and address their unique plight. International recognition then becomes an issue of semantics, as micronations figure out how to exist without a seat at the United Nations. As such, the constitutive theory is becoming obsolete insofar as it can no longer apply to these principalities.
Even more broadly, the fact that anyone can declare a parcel of land to be an independent nation has implications for more firmly established independence movements. Taiwan and Catalonia certainly could not declare themselves micronations tomorrow—for one thing, both are too large to be considered “micro.” Moreover, there would be massive political repercussions—not to mention possible violence or military intervention—if such a declaration were to be issued. However, if the constitutive theory of statehood were to be phased out, in time, places such as Taiwan or Catalonia could potentially achieve the diplomatic independence they have always desired. Though micronations such as Sealand might be seen as droll, there is no doubt that these aspiring nations could someday have an important impact on international law and even the fate of other independence movements. One day, perhaps, micronations will have a macro influence.
Infographic by Minji Koo ’20, data by Sarah Conlisk ’20