In a blog written for the CCC Summer School, Susann Simolin takes stock of whether the Åland Islands have maintained their autonomy after Finland joined the European Union.
The Åland Islands, situated in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden, is an autonomous, demilitarised, neutral and Swedish-speaking part of bilingual Finland. It has exclusive legislative and administrative competences in many areas, and it is the only region with such authority in the otherwise unitary state of Finland.
In 1995, after two referendums, the Åland Islands agreed to be included in the European Union, together with Finland. Åland had the option to choose whether to opt-in or opt-out due to a provision in the Autonomy Act, which establishes that the Åland Parliament must consent to international treaties where these include matters within the competence of Åland before these can enter into force in the territory.
The Åland Government considered the EU to be the best possible or, least bad, alternative for Åland when Finland and Sweden acceded in 1995. However, before accession, the Government saw risks that the EU might imply constraining effects for Åland’s autonomy and economy. This resulted in some derogations to Åland’s status in Finland’s accession protocol to the EU.
These derogations allowed Åland to maintain some restrictions on the right to buy land and establish a business for persons lacking regional citizenship (Right of Domicile). Åland was also excluded from the EU’s tax union; the Åland islands are considered as a third territory in relation to the EU, with respect to indirect taxation. This second exemption was and is important to Åland because it means that tax -ree goods can be sold on the ferries which traffic the Åland Islands, and the ferry-traffic contributes significantly to Åland’s economy and access to transport. However, while the tax border fulfilled its purpose with regards to the ferry-traffic, it has also created administrative problems for land-based enterprises as well as for the Government. The tax border has been perceived as making Åland’s borders harder, both in relation to Finland and to the rest of the EU.
Government documents and interviews with politicians and civil servants on Åland convey the apprehension that Åland’s autonomy has been both strengthened and weakened by the EU-membership. It is considered as strengthened from the perspective of international law - Åland’s special status is enshrined in the Finland accession treaty with the EU. However, at the same time, and at a more concrete level, the EU-membership is considered to not only have entailed a transfer of competences to the Union, but it has also meant Åland has become more dependent on the state.
While Finland as an EU-member state is represented in the EU’s decision-making bodies, Åland as an autonomous region is not. Instead, the Åland Government is entitled to participate in the national authorities’ work with EU-matters, something which is enshrined in the Autonomy Act. However, the fact that Åland, in areas within its jurisdiction, must go through Finland to present its views to the EU, and in some cases must consult with Finland or even just comply to Finland’s decisions on how EU policies should be implemented rather than being able to take its own decisions. This is considered a leakage of competences to Finland due to the EU-membership. The Åland Government position is thus that Åland has lost some of its independent decision-making powers due to the EU-membership, and that Åland has not been compensated for its losses to an adequate degree – in particular what regards influence in EU-institutions. Above all, Åland has for over 25 years strived unsuccessfully to obtain its own seat in the European Parliament.
When Åland acceded to the EU with Finland, it had strong autonomy, good finances and already partially open borders within the context of Nordic co-operation. Upon accession, Åland thus strived to protect and safeguard its position and to prevent the autonomy and economy from deteriorating. The exemptions Åland obtained were seen and are seen as essential. The core ideas of European integration have been described by successive Governments, both at accession and later, as positive for Åland and judging by Government documents and interviews, the EU today is treated as a necessity and matter of fact. However, European integration causes certain problems that must be addressed, in relation to division of competences, possibilities for participation and in the everyday work of the regional Government, which struggles to deal with complex EU-rules, perceived to be adapted for much larger units than Åland with its 30.000 inhabitants.
Just like many other regions with legislative powers, Åland is trying to balance its needs for integration and participation - its embeddedness in the state and in the EU - with differentiation and autonomous decision-making.
The blog piece builds on a report in Swedish focusing on Åland’s ambitions and room for manoeuvre within the EU, based on Åland Government PM’s on EU-matters 1990-2018 and on interviews with politicians and civil servants on Åland. The report was published as part of a study commissioned by the Åland Government on the experiences of 25 years of EU membership and conducted by the Åland Islands Peace Institute in cooperation with Statistics and Research Åland (Åsub).
Susann Simolin is a Researcher at the Åland Islands Peace Institute and a PhD student in Political Science at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Her research interests include relations of territorial autonomies and their central state as well as the use of examples of territorial autonomy in international conflict resolution. Susann Simolin on Twitter