Andorra, one of the six microstates of Europe with its population of 77,000 and 468km2 land mass, was founded in 1298 CE – not as a Catalan breakaway state from neighbouring France and Spain, as one might imagine due to the Catalan culture, ethnicity, and language at its core, but as a buffer state to shield France from the Moors of Spain. Located in a region of the Pyrenees with evidence of human habitation since 6640 BCE, this once-Catalan-now-multicultural society exhibits characteristics typical of its isolated and rural nature. At an elevation of 1,050 metres, its capital city of Andorra La Vella is the highest of same in Europe.
The rural nature of Andorra, with just 1.7% arable land and shepherding the major occupation through the mid-20th century, is a strong contributor to the national identity even in the capital city. Andorran self-concept is grounded in: (1) a medieval political legacy, in its co-principality by the Bishop of Spain and the President of France; (2) a mountainous topography, from which it leads socio-political and economic movements in the region; and, (3) Catalan culture, to include features such as innovation and creativity, intellectual curiosity, diligence, resilience, capacity to absorb differing influences, values of co-existence and tolerance, separatism, autonomy, and fierce independence.
Initially established for political purposes, Andorra has loomed large in the imagination of those who engage in resistance, counterculture, and independence movements throughout the region. In Spain’s 1930s civil war, refugees from both sides fled to Andorra, many of whom remained; during the Franco era which followed (1939-1975), the mountain state provided a base for a black market, supply of propaganda as well as counter-regime materials, and other resistance activities. Jews fleeing Vichy France for Spain during World War II also found their way through the Pyrenees, often via Andorra, some of whom stayed. Andorra has generally remained neutral, with minimal direct engagement in either world war or Spain’s civil war; it has no standing army and has never known war in its own territory, a critical feature of its cultural psyche.
The Andorran population is 88.2% Catholic, although freedom of religion and prohibition of religious discrimination are constitutionally protected. The unique co-principality by the Bishop of Spain and the President of France is largely a formality today, as the prime minister is head of state. Ethnoculturally, the current society is less than half Andorran (48.7%), with Spanish 24.6%, Portuguese 11.6%, French 4.4%, and other 10.6% (2020 est.). From Roman times, when the area represented a key crossroads among surrounding countries, the society has been one of transience – also seen in the nomadic nature of its shepherding past, and the international merchants who maintain legal residence there today. This has resulted in an openness to strangers and minimal interethnic conflict; of note, the capital city, with 60% of all residents, shows no notable pattern of ethnic segregation.
A key characteristic of this geographically isolated society has been self-sufficiency from the ‘outer world’. Historically, Andorra engaged in mutual aid and reliance on kin groups, though this is only a moderate influence today. With less than 2% of its land arable, it was primarily a meat and dairy sustenance historically, with nearly all food imported in modern times. Through the mid-20th century, livestock as well as tobacco were key exports, along with natural resources of hydropower, mineral water, timber, iron ore, and lead. In recent decades, however, tourism has become the economic driver, representing a full 80% of the state’s GDP with winter ski and summer mountain resorts. The area, with its tax-free status, has also become known as a tax haven for Europe’s wealthiest – especially as the nation uses the Euro as its currency since 2011, but does not belong to the European Union. For a few decades post-World War II it held one of the highest GDPs in Europe, and today maintains still a very high economic status with one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates at just 2.2% (December 2021). The society includes many of the world’s wealthiest, however — who do not seek employment. It has been said that Andorra, while seemingly comfortable in its multi-ethnic makeup, nevertheless remains very class-/status-oriented.
Andorra remained a rural-based society with marked gender role segregation to the late 20th century, though it has undergone rapid change in this arena in the past 3 decades. Today, women are much more equal to men in the workplace and in society generally, except in politics. Andorra displays an impressive 100% literacy rate – though it is among the lowest in Europe for percentage of citizens with tertiary education. In terms of diplomacy, since the mid-1990s Andorra has begun to engage more closely with other nations; with its reliance on tourism, a fair amount of social engagement and marketing is expected. However, in many ways it remains highly independent, neutral, and seemingly indifferent to the rest of the world – as only a small, remote mountain society could.