Little Known Special Territories of the European Union

Angela Dansby

This week I was asked some questions about the European Union (EU) by a U.S. university student. One was: “Why did some countries leave the EU?”

While only one country, the United Kingdom, has left the EU since it was founded in 1993, interestingly, three territories of EU member countries exited the precursor to the EU, the European Economic Community (1957-93), decades ago. They are former French Algeria (now Algeria), Saint Barthélemey island in the Caribbean and Greenland.

Why did they leave? Let’s start with “Brexit.” The UK officially left the EU as of 1 January 2021 due to a very slim majority of its citizens, primarily in rural areas, voting in a referendum to withdraw out of national interests. A depressed economy, particularly among the working class, and immigration were two significant factors. (A global wave of populism didn’t help either.)

The case of French Algeria was much simpler. It was a founding member of the European Economic Community from 1957 to 1962 as a territory of France, but not after it became independent in 1962 as Algeria.

Saint Barthélemey (St. Barts in English), which became an overseas department of France independent of Guadalupe in 2007, left the EU as an “outermost region” (OMR) in 2012 to become more independent as one of its associated overseas countries and territories (OCT).

Greenland became an OMR of the EU as part of Denmark in 1973 but after gaining autonomy (within the Kingdom of Denmark) in 1979, it voted to leave, becoming an OCT instead in 1985. The main reason was disagreement about the Common Fisheries Policy; Greenland wanted to regain control of its fish resources.

Note that Greenlandic nationals are citizens of the Realm of Denmark and therefore, EU citizens. This means Greenlanders can move and reside freely within the EU. Such OCT nationals can be granted the right to vote and participate in European Parliament elections, subject to the conditions defined by their related EU member states. As an OCT, Greenland has some integration with the EU’s internal market via agreements and receives EU funding for sustainable development.

Greenland photos by Annie Spratt via

Including Greenland and St. Barthélemey, there are 32 special territories of EU member states due to historical, geographical and/or political reasons. They are divided into three categories: OMR, which are part of the EU but have derogations from some EU laws due to their geographical remoteness from mainland Europe; special cases that are part of the EU – except the Faroe Islands – with ad hoc provisions to EU law; and OCT that are not part of the EU but cooperate with it via the Overseas Countries and Territories Association. Collectively, the EU special territories account for about 6.1 million people and 2.7 million square kilometers. The largest territory by population, the Canary Islands, has more than a third of the people living in the special territories and Greenland is the largest by far in land space, accounting for about 80 percent. With the exception of Greenlanders, OCT nationals are not granted EU citizenship.

Map courtesy of Note it was created in 2020 before Brexit.

Spain’s Canary Islands are among nine OMR. The others are the Azores and Madeira of Portugal and France’s overseas territories: French Guiana in South America; Guadalupe, Martinique and Saint Martin islands in the Caribbean; and Mayotte and La Réunion islands in the Indian Ocean. (By the way, Mayotte consists of a main island, Grande-Terre and a smaller island, Petite-Terre, and several islets around them both.)

Canary Islands of Spain are the largest by population of the EU’s Outermost Region.
Photo by Zinah Insignia via

Ten special case territories of EU member countries are also part of the EU and special indeed as you’ve likely never heard of them:

  • Melilla and Ceuta of Spain – two permanently inhabited Spanish cities bordering northern Morocco
  • Åland of Finland – a Swedish-speaking, autonomous and demilitarized archipelago (group of islands)
  • Faroe Islands of Denmark – a North Atlantic archipelago that’s autonomous
  • United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus – a demilitarized zone and de facto partition between the Republic of Cyprus and largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Established in 1964, this 180-kilometer-long zone known as the Green Line was extended in 1974 after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. It is patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.
  • Livigno and Campione d’Italia of Italy – communes in the region of Lombardy. Livigno is also a town and Campione d’Italia is an exclave surrounded by the Swiss canton of Ticino.
  • Büsingen am Hochrhein and Heligoland of Germany – an enclave municipality surrounded by territory belonging to Switzerland and small archipelago in the North Sea, respectively. Büsingen is separated from the rest of Germany by a narrow strip of land containing the Swiss village Dörflingen. Heligoland islands are the only German-owned ones not next the mainland.
  • Monastic Republic of Mount Athos of Greece – an Eastern Orthodox religious enclave on a peninsula in Northern Greece. It has 20 monasteries.

Finally, there are 13 OTCs (in order from largest to smallest land space): Greenland, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Curaçao, Bonaire, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Aruba, Wallis-et-Futuna, Sint Maarten, Saint Barthélemy, Sint Eustatius and Saba (only 13 square kilometers). After the first four, the rest are islands. Note the French Southern and Antarctic Lands do not have a permanent population.

While not part of the EU, nor adherent to EU treaties, the microstate of Monaco is treated as a territory of France for customs, VAT and excise purposes and similarly, the UK Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekélia are treated as territories of Cyprus. The microstate of San Marino is treated as a territory of Italy for customs and excise purposes only. The microstates of Andorra in Spain and Vatican City in Italy have no EU association at all, nor does the UK territory of Gibraltar or the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean (yet oddly, French-owned islands there are EU territories).

Map courtesy of

On top of all of this, there are five candidate member countries of the EU – Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Turkey – which hope to join the existing 27. (Turkey is unlikely – certainly not while under its current leadership.)

Note that Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are in Europe but not EU members, nor wish to be. As each Norwegian citizen is entitled to a cut of state earnings on investments from its lucrative oil industry, the country surely doesn’t want to share its wealth with the rest of the EU. Iceland (right) has frozen assets so to speak and Switzerland has always prided itself in being neutral politically and prosperous economically. Interestingly, Norway and Switzerland have the highest cost of living in Europe.

While I prided myself in visiting every EU member state, I now realize I haven’t seen all of the EU. Aside from Aruba and the demilitarized zone in Cyprus, I still have 30 special territories to go! In the meantime, I doubt I’ll be asked any more questions about the EU.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).