For most of the citizens in this beautiful continent we call Europe, yesterday was a Sunday like many others. For 33,000 people, it was instead the day to cast a vote to determine their future within the EU. Yes, we are talking about the tiny Republic of San Marino. The citizens of the “serenissima” (most serene) Republic, the oldest sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, encircled by Italy and therefore already deeply linked to the EU, were in fact called to a referendum to vote on whether or not they would like San Marino to engage in the accession process to the EU. Despite the low media coverage, this could potentially have been the first milestone for San Marino to become the EU’s 29th Member State. At the end of the voting period, however, the quorum for the referendum was not reached, as about 4,000 votes, needed to reach the threshold for the referendum to be valid, were missing. Furthermore, the votes cast showed a major fracture in the country: 50.3% voted “yes”, while “no” was the answer of the remaining 49.7% of voters.

The referendum, promoted by a citizens’ committee and supported by parts of the major political parties of the Republic, triggered a polarized debate. Promoters of the referendum put on the table as their main argument the fact that, with the current situation, San Marino bears the consequences of EU legislation but it does not have any voice in shaping it. Moreover, in their campaign, they have been reminding citizens that the referendum only concerns the start of accession negotiations, rather than actual accession. After the negotiations, in which San Marino would ask for some derogations (e.g. on freedom of movement of people), the final accession decision would return back into the hands of the Sammarinese through another referendum.

On the opposite side, promoters of the “no” vote made their voice heard as well. Their main concern was the problematic integration of such a tiny state, which is ten times smaller than the EU’s current smallest state, Malta, into the Union. In reality, they argued, accession would mean that San Marino’s voice would not receive sufficient weight anyway, while at the same time meaning that the Republic would have to open its doors (and its highly developed welfare system) to 500 million people. The “no” side also held that a negative vote does not entail an anti-EU view, but just a call for more convenient methods of cooperation, such as different bilateral agreements on the various issues of concern to San Marino.

For its part, the Commission indirectly also engaged in this debate. In its 2012 Communication on EU Relations with the Principality of Andorra, the Principality of Monaco and the Republic of San Marino, the Commission services held that “membership application would face two major difficulties: first, the EU institutions are currently not adapted to the accession of such small-sized countries. In order to ensure adequate democratic representation of all citizens … important changes to the European Treaties and the institutional setup of the EU would be required … Second, the limited administrative capacity of the small-sized countries will have a significant impact on their ability to implement the EU acquis and to fulfil all obligations as EU Member States”.

Therefore, it seems that San Marino will adopt the “pick and choose” approach of accumulating bilateral agreements, and will, at least for the time being, not be joining the EU family.