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Non-existent countries

Updated Monday 9th April 2018

What makes a country count as a country? Andy Morris interviews geographer and broadcaster Nick Middleton about his recent book 'An Atlas of Countries that Don't Exist'.

Andy Morrison and Nick Middleton Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

What exactly makes a country a country? You might be surprised at how slippery a concept this can be. According to the Montevideo convention, statehood requires ‘a permanent population; a defined territory; a government; and a capacity to enter into relations with other states’. As Nick Middleton argues in his book, the many and varied histories and geographies of contested nationalisms have led to a fascinating story of what it means to be a country and why it matters.

From familiar names that are routinely considered to be countries, such as Taiwan and Somaliland, to North Sea nations such as Sealand with its population of 27, Nick Middleton’s book highlights how the conventional map of the world divided by national borders is unsettled and contested. He draws attention to the ways in which fixed borders and national flags are continually subverted by competing identities, uneven mobilities, the effects of power and ‘a world of flows’.

To find out more, the OU’s Andy Morris interviewed Nick Middleton about his book ‘An Atlas of Countries that Don't Exist’.  Listen below, or read along with the transcript.  

Transcript

Andy Morris

Hello. I'm Andy Morris from the Geography Department at the Open University and I'm joined here today by Doctor Nick Middleton from Saint Anne’s College Oxford.

Nick is a geographer but he is also a travel writer, a broadcaster and an environmental consultant.

Thank you for joining me today Nick.

We’re – we’re here to talk about your new book, relatively new book, which came out last year An Atlas of Countries That Don't Exist. I wonder for the benefit of those that haven't yet become familiar with your book if you – if you could describe it in brief terms.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

It’s an introduction to – to fifty non-existent countries. And when I say non-existent I mean places that would like to be countries but are not recognised as such by other countries. And those other countries being places with a seat at the United Nations for example. But when you start looking into what defines a country first point to make is that there is no internationally, universally agreed definition of a country. And secondly there are lots and lots of places out there with various degrees of country-ness if you like. So – and we’re sitting in one here, now, England. I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked overseas to describe and explain the difference between England, Wales, Scotland, United Kingdom, British Isles. And that was part of the – the inspiration for the book actually – that long held feeling of trying to explain the difference, because if you say a country is a place with a seat at the United Nations then the UK is a country but England isn't because England only has access to the UN through the UK seat and yet we’ve got a football team, we've got a cricket team. There are all sorts of exceptions that some people would say would prove the rule.

So I've selected fifty non-existent countries. So countries that don’t appear on the conventional political map of the world. And they're defined as having some sort of claim to territory, some form of government, a population and if you follow the Montevideo Convention which gives a – a legal definition of a country they have the ability to enter into relations with other countries. And there are lots of them out there. I've selected fifty but I could have filled the book several times over. I was shocked at how many places there are and I didn’t include jokes because there are people who decide to declare independence for their front room or their back garden. I didn’t include these. So all of my fifty have a seriousness of purpose about them.

 

Andy Morris

Yes, yes. You highlight the fact that there's this tension between spaces as kind of very fixed places and the idea of what you call a world of flows and I wondered if you could just say something about what you think countries that don’t exist tell us about this tension.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Yes, well here we are sitting in the European Union and it’s a grand political experiment isn't it, about doing away with internal borders and they’ve been done away to varying extents. And that’s in tune with a sort of more trans-national and international view of the planet where investment can come and go almost at the flick of a computer button and move all over the globe at any time. It’s rather less easy if you are a refugee as we know now with all the people trying to enter Europe from places like Syria and Afghanistan. Lots of countries try very hard to keep hold of regions that would like more autonomy but nonetheless there is that tension.

So movement is easy for some, less easy for others.

 

Andy Morris

If I could ask you about some of your selections for the book as well. I mean I think the thing that is really quite kind of compelling is the engaging variety that you’ve chosen here.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

That’s not difficult when you’ve got so much choice and there's a variety of different types of non country. Taiwan is a very interesting case in point that most people I suspect would just think is a normal run-of-the-mill proper country. Um – not quite. UK does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. We don’t recognise it as a proper country. Most other countries in the world don’t recognise it. And that’s because in 1971 it was slung out of the United Nations so the Taiwan government do not have a seat at the UN. Why? Because up until that point they did have the Chinese seat and then the rest of the member states of the UN decided that actually Mainland China should have this seat. There is only one China and actually interestingly enough both Mainland China and Taiwan agree. They both say in their Constitutions there's only one China, but Taiwan being smaller, despite having a population of tens of millions, its own economy and its own democratically elected government, lost its seat at the UN and no one recognises it, save for a handful of island states who get a lot of foreign aid from Taiwan. So it’s an interesting case in point where it was unquestionably a legitimate country – now much less so. And it is in the same category I would argue as a place like Sealand, which is this former gunnery platform off the coast of Essex which always raises a smile and yet is there under – under legitimate circumstances because when it first declared its independence in the Sixties it was outside British territorial waters. And they, like many of these non countries, sought legitimacy and at one stage one of the family who occupied Sealand was had up on a firearms charge at Essex Assizes Court. And the judge threw out the case because he said I can't rule over an event that happened outside Britain. And Sealand realised that this was tantamount in their eyes to a recognition of their separateness and they continued to say ‘we are a separate sovereign nation’. Again, no one else recognises them but under the Montevideo Convention if we go back to that definition, they are a country because they have a population. They have a claim to territory, albeit manmade. They have a government and they have capacity to enter into relations with other countries. So they are a country.

 

Andy Morris

One of the other things as well is the fact that it highlights the kind of varied and creative ways in which countries can come into existence. I mean examples, like Elgaland-Vargaland that are in the book which you might like to explain in a second. But just how those are almost kind of creative conceptual ideas of what a country could be.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Yes they are and I've deliberately included them to make people think because we’re brought up to believe that the only way of organising in a political sense the Planet’s land surface is through these things called countries. But there are alternatives. Let’s just tell you about Elgaland-Vargaland which was created as an artistic concept by two Swedish artists who wanted to set up their own country, hadn't got an army or legitimate claim to territory until they started looking at maps and realised that between most countries there are very narrow strips of no-mans land and who do they belong to? So Elgaland-Vargaland said okay, we’re claiming all those strips because they don’t belong to anyone. They're ours now. And they took it further to claim the high seas and also even further to claim other states of consciousness so when you go to sleep you go to Elgaland-Vargaland. So it always raises a smile and rightly so but at the same time they are making quite serious points and I remember a long time ago on a back packing trip in Central America, leaving Mexico to go to Guatemala one evening. I got an exit stamp from the Mexican immigration people and it was a few hundred metres to the Guatemalan border post which was shut and there happened to be a little café in between land and I ate something and spent the night there but I'd left Mexico. I hadn't entered Guatemala. Where was I? Well now I realise I was in Elgaland-Vargaland.

 

Andy Morris

Yes − what I have to say as a geographer, it’s always the connections, those meeting points and gaps between places that are the most interesting.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Yes, I agree they are.

 

Andy Morris

I'm interested to know how you actually went about kind of what must have been an incredibly methodical research process for the book.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

So the research was such where a lot of these places have websites. There are big organisations of non countries. There's UNPO and the UUN, the – I can't remember what the acronym stands for now – the Unrecognised People’s Organisation – has about forty, fifty, sixty non countries as members. They have websites, which take you into these places. And then each – each non country has a sort of vignette which both gives you its history and some flavour of their struggle for nationhood. And the sources I used for those were – were very varied. I used some old newspaper coverage of particular events, newspaper and television news footage in some cases. I found a great clip from the ITN news in the seventies of the Turks invading Northern – Northern Cyprus. So I had moving pictures and commentary to write to. There are various diaries like the – Tibet is in here as a non country and I used Tibetan refugees’ diary remembrances of the days when the Chinese invaded and the Dalai Lama left. Plus academic papers and books and so on and so forth. So a very wide range of sources.

 

Andy Morris

One of the other things I wonder as I read the book as well is, do you ever lie awake at night thinking ah – I should have put that one in!

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Yes! Um no, no. What I lie awake and think about is what's going to go in Volume Two, and I've already started compiling a list. I was at a conference in Iran about a month ago. I went out to dinner with some Italians who were also at the conference and we were talking. The woman I was sitting next to was from Sardinia and I asked her if there was any efforts for Sardinians to become independent. “Oh yes – yes there is. There's a strong movement.” “Do they have their own flag?” I asked her. “Yes, they do.” “What about language?” “Oh yes.” And I was mentally ticking off, well in that case I'm going to include Sardinia next time. And it will certainly be up there. I'm sure.

 

Andy Morris

I guess the same could be said about Corsica as well.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Yes, I could have included Corsica. Could well include Corsica in another volume. In fact I could probably do an entire fifty country volume just with European examples. There's a phenomenal number of would-be nation states in Europe.

 

Andy Morris

I'm interested in – in what you think the book expresses about geography more broadly, perhaps as a subject. Does – how does it speak to geography do you think?

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Wow! There's a question and a half.

 

Well, it speaks to non-geographers because it’s clearly a book about geography in that the word ‘atlas’ is used. I think most lay people associate geography with maps therefore it’s clearly a geography book but it’s also designed to make people think and open their eyes a bit about the way they see the world i.e. as a geographical perspective on – on where we are and make them think about what they take for granted. So you look at a political world map and that’s the way the world is organised. Well yes but also no because it’s the way the powers that be want you to see the world map and it deliberately ignores lots of these wannabe nation states which this book shows you are also out there.

 

Andy Morris

Yeah I mean atlases are also very much a starting point for us so it’s nice to have the kind of familiar starting point here but to twist it slightly and to introduce some of the ideas that perhaps we deal with as academics, the idea of things like spatial flows those kinds of things have a place in this story as well so you're combining the familiar with the more critical I guess.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Yes and that’s deliberate and I hope in this book you go as far as you – you feel able or want to go because you can just look at it on the surface as some pretty nicely designed maps and interesting stories and they are interesting, good strong stories and picked because of that. But as you say if you're more interested critically you can use it as a starting point to go in all sorts of directions about politics, political geography, the way we organise the Planet’s surface, so on and so forth.

 

Andy Morris

Okay. Well it just remains for me to thank you very much for joining me today Nick and yes – thank you.

 

Dr Nick Middleton

Not at all.

Further Reading

More information on Nick Middleton’s book ‘An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist’ (2015) is available from the publisher’s website.

The themes and ideas explored in An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist connect to content in the Level 1 module DD103 ‘Investigating the Social World’ where Butcher and Morris (2015) explore the role of power in defining place, mobility and migration and the cultural significance of the nation as home. This is further explored in Conway and Staples's (2015) examination of symbols of nationalism and the creation of ‘Homelands’.

Butcher, M and Morris, A (2015) ‘Mapping Home’ in Murji, K (ed) Investigating the Social World 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Conway, D and Staples, M (2015) ‘Homelands: the nation, state and nationalisms’ in Murji, K (ed) Investigating the Social World 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University

The Level 3 module DU311 ‘Earth in Crisis: Environmental Policy in an International Context’ also explores some of these ideas through its themes of ‘International political divisions, inequalities and distributions of power,’ and ‘Differences across time and space’.

 

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