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One of the most common questions you get asked when you live in a microstate is: "Who are you the son of?" It happens at school, when you join your local soccer team, and when you start a new job. That's because everyone knows everyone else.
Just like any other country, microstates have their own courts, national flags, anthems, healthcare systems, and government institutions. The biggest difference with any other sovereign nation, though, is that microstates often have the population of a mid-sized town.
I'm from San Marino (population: ~30,000), so know exactly what it's like to come from a country whose mere survival baffles most people – as if it were some sort of accident of history. Still, I want to find out what it means to govern a place that exists in such a peculiar context – especially when you're young and into politics. That's why I decided to speak with two political figures: one from my home country and the other from the Principality of Andorra (population: ~80,000).
In April 2018, San Marino made international headlines when then-27-year-old Matteo Ciacci became the world’s youngest head of state. As is tradition, he shared the position with a colleague for six months as co-Captain Regents. Their main functions are mainly ceremonial, with few executive powers. Roger Padreny has less of an eye-catching role, but the 25-year-old is probably the most active youngster in the political life of the microstate of Andorra, which borders Spain and France.
Matteo’s party, Civico 10, founded in 2012, was part of the coalition that won the 2016 elections. He has a law degree, but he now makes his living as a full-time politician. Roger is currently a Social Democratic Party MP in Andorra's General Council (Parliament) and a member of the party's executive— a high office, considering this party has a much stronger influence than Cívico 10. He's also the founder and chairman of Fórum de la Juventud Andorrana, and represented his country in conferences organised by international groups such as UNICEF, UNESCO and the Council of Europe.
The first thing I wanted to know was how they got to where they are so early in their careers. “Politics in Andorra is not like doing it is in a big city – like Barcelona, for example," Roger said. “Between 18 and 30, most people leave the country to study, and when they come back they’re focused on having a family and starting their careers, having spent what can be considered the most revolutionary years of their lives somewhere else."
The challenging part, Roger said, is "achieving something for young people, because there's no youth movement in Andorra asking for rights. At the last elections, half the under-30 voters didn't show up at the polls."
This antipathy towards politics among his generation, combined with his hard-working nature, is what made him stand out. “When I was eight I fought against a waste incinerator,” Roger told me. “It just felt good to do it. You start with one political act, then things just grow. Moreover, my mum was involved in politics on a local level, so I was introduced to it at home.”
In San Marino, "young people are more into politics", said Matteo, who started out in politics as a teenager. "That grew after the international economic crisis and is also due to the fact that a few years ago, several local politicians were arrested, which led to a kind of moral political crisis here." In 2011, a number of politicians from San Marino were accused, in some cases, of links with organised crime and money laundering, in a country that in the past had a huge number of banks and financial institutions.
The recent 2011 scandal led to a wave of arrests, but also a serious revolution in how politics is done: movements like Civico 10 were founded, and traditional parties began looking for new faces to prove that the bad guys had been kicked out. In the formation of the 60-seat parliament that followed the 2016 elections, almost one-third of the members were new.
Roger also admitted that being a politician in a microstate can be discouraging. “Sometimes if someone is linked to a certain party, it can create problems when they search for a job, and for their relatives, too.”
Did Matteo and Roger feel their countries are too conservative? "In Andorra I can see it in a lack of human rights," Roger said. "For example, the influence of the Church is so big that we cannot change the law that criminalises abortion. We have two symbolic representatives, the president of France and the bishop of Spain's main surrounding areas, and the latter applied pressure by saying that if we were going to legalise abortion he’d abdicate."
According to Matteo, the situation in San Marino is very similar: "Our main Catholic party ruled for decades, and was usually not in favour of changes. There are lots of religious influences here. After all we’re named after a saint – San Marino. It’s not about the Church as an institution per se, it’s more a kind of feeling that people have, a sensibility.” Things are slowly changing in some aspects. “In November 2018, San Marino approved a civil union law that recognises same sex marriages as being equal. But regarding abortion, he added, “We have a law against it and must modify it. But it’s hard, mostly because of the power of conservative parties and our culture.”
This feeling of preservation seemed to lie deeper. “If you’re not the son of a San Marino citizen, it’s not easy to become ‘sammarinese’,” Matteo pointed out. “You must live here regularly for 25 years as a resident, or be married to one for 15.” Dual-citizenship is not allowed in Andorra, “And you know why?,” Roger asked. “Because more people would vote. It’s a way of maintaining the current balance in the advantage of conservative parties.”
“I see it even when people say they’re scared about our relationship with the EU [both San Marino and Andorra remain outside the Union, but are in talks for an association agreement], because we would lose our sovereignty and peculiarities,” Roger told me.
On another level, Roger and Matteo agreed that compared to working in big-city politics, a microstate offers more closeness with local institutions, and as a politician you’re likely to have an immediate and relevant impact. This encouraged them, especially when it came to certain forms of activism, such as gathering signatures for a petition to open a place where students could study, which was one of Matteo's most successful initiatives before he entered politics full-time.
This also applies to voters – since in a microstate you don't find as many filters between the electors and the elected. Roger values that small-knit nature of his homeland. “I studied in Barcelona but often went home for the weekends. Here I can make my voice heard and make a difference, be involved in unique processes like the making of a law, or being part of a particular council. In a big city it’s different, it’s harder to have these opportunities.”
As someone who’s lived abroad for long periods, I can say for certain that life in San Marino has major benefits. It’s easier in a microstate to get in touch with key people, whether you need help with anything from employment issues to healthcare. You feel like you’re part of an exclusive club.
However, though it’s a small club, you still have to answer that same question, over and over again: "Who are you the son of?"
"The last time that happened to me was last week,” Roger remembered. “For me it's not strange, especially in formal meetings or working groups. At the same time I consider it an old-fashioned way of thinking and acting. It's like you are judged by your past and family, and it's not important who you really are or what you have done."
Don't miss the next issue of VICE Magazine later this month, dedicated to the global exploration of borders, investigating why we've imbued them with so much power, and what happens when those lines aren’t visible to the naked eye.