Reviews The Åland autonomy. The Åland autonomy. A success story and a particular case

The Future Conditions for the Åland Autonomy, Bjarne Lindström and Göran Lindholm (Olof M. Jansson’s Foundation for the promotion of historical research on Åland, 2021), 95 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:1-2, pp 168-169
Published on on June 22, 2022

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Contemporary political and economic trends are heavily influenced by a powerful centralization tendency. However, in some places the strong centralization reflex is challenged by regionalization efforts.

In Europe, the prime current centralization example in both politics and economics is the emergence and expansion of the European Union. Yet, in spite of its enormous resources, the European Union is forced to co-exist with regionalization forces within its realm.

Several regions in Europe are not at ease with the universal centralization imperative, but seek political and institutional arrangements tailor-made to regional social and cultural preferences. A prominent case in point in the Baltic region is the century-old Åland autonomy: the entirely Swedish-speaking Åland archipelago being politically fully a part of Finland, but culturally always leaning towards Sweden.

It was towards the end of the First World War that the Ålanders began working for reunification with Sweden. Like the rest of Finland, Åland had been an integral part of Sweden for several centuries, then part of tsarist Russia for over one century.

The Åland slogan was ”Finland free — Åland Swedish”. The issue was referred to the League of Nations, which was set up after World War I. The League of Nations decided in 1921 that Finland would acquire sovereignty over Åland and that the Ålanders would be granted new guarantees to preserve their ethnic identity, including the Swedish language.

The ambitious recent report The Future Conditions for the Åland Autonomy by Bjarne Lindström and Göran Lindholm thoroughly examines the historical intricacies and institutional subtleties of the Åland autonomy and compares it to six other European autonomies. The report is published by the Olof M. Jansson foundation, established for the promotion of historical research on Åland by the farmer and parliamentarian Olof M. Jansson from the community of Strömma in Hammarland on the main island of Åland.

The six European reference autonomies that the report highlights are the Faroe Islands, South Tyrol, the Basque Country, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar and, lastly, Flanders in Belgium (that is found to be less comparable with Åland than the other five). Each autonomy is a case of its own with lots of unique specificities, making comparisons very elusive. To mention but one example, Catalonia is an autonomous region in north-eastern Spain with some 7.5 million inhabitants — 250 times more than Åland. It stands to reason that the autonomy of Åland faces completely different issues than the much bigger Catalonia.

Strategically situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Finland, the Åland archipelago comprises 6,757 islands (and, in addition, a total of some 20,000 smaller islets and skerries) but with a population of only 30,000 people, Åland displays a politically very ambitious autonomous entity. Still, the report makes the case that the Åland autonomy is in great need of renewal; ”that the time is ripe for a comprehensive reform of the Autonomy Act”.

The report underlines that ”the main purpose of the Åland autonomy, and the original ambition behind it, was to guarantee the population’s Swedish language and cultural identity” and argues that the protection of the Swedish language remains the core of the autonomy’s legal and political competence. The authors point to a need to shift from reactive monitoring of the status quo to a more proactive expansion of Åland’s legal and political scope of action, as seen in several of the European reference autonomies.

It should be remembered, however, that Åland is a dynamic and thriving welfare society, one of the wealthiest in the world. The Åland autonomy has also scored a number of institutional successes in the international arena. Often mentioned among successes for the Åland autonomy is the striking and beautiful blue-yellow-red Åland flag approved in 1954 (in my opinion, arguably one of the most beautiful flags of Scandinavia, second only to the even more colorful and artistic Sami flag), the Åland stamps first issued in 1984 and the latest high-tech break-through in securing the domain .ax, approved in 2006 by the international body in charge of registering internet domains. This goes to show that even a very small regional autonomy is fully capable of achieving objectives that improve and streamline everyday life for both its citizens and its occasional guests.

The shortcomings and challenges that the report describes must not overshadow the impressive achievements and success stories of the Åland autonomy.

  • by Manne Wängborg

    A Swedish diplomat and writer, former Consul General of Sweden in Kaliningrad, Russia, and Deputy Secretary-General of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission.

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The Future Conditions for the Åland Autonomy, Bjarne Lindström and Göran Lindholm (Olof M. Jansson’s Foundation for the promotion of historical research on Åland, 2021), 95 pages