The ongoing turmoil in Spain over Catalan independence is being watched very carefully in the Åland Islands.
“I’d say what we learned from Catalonia is of course what we maybe already knew, the importance of keeping an independence process with no violence” says Axel Johnsson, Chairman of the pro-independence Ålands Framtid party.
Åland is an autonomous region of Finland, hundreds of small islands and thousands of rocky outcrops scattered like a handful of pebbles thrown into the Baltic Sea off the southwest coast, and home to 30,000 inhabitants.
The region has been part of Finland since the early 1920s, but closer in terms of geography, culture and language to Sweden. While most of Finland is officially bilingual in Finnish and Swedish, Åland is the only part of Finland which is monolingually Swedish.
Johnsson, a 25-year-old who studies law in Stockholm in addition to his party leader duties, says events in Spain, and other independence movements in Europe, make his supporters in Åland even more determined to continue.
“It definitely gives us more courage and strength to keep on doing our thing […] you also see from the Scottish process, they said the same thing ‘we give them a referendum and they don’t have a majority and it will be history’ but during the last year of the [Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014] especially when the debate started, people began to think”.
Åland Politics 101
There are 30 seats in the Åland Parliament – Ålands Lagting – elected by proportional representation.
Åland has its own political parties, with some ties to Finnish mainstream parliamentary parties. But you won’t find familiar names like the Left Alliance, National Coalition Party or Finns Party on the ballot in Åland.
Ålands Framdit – which means Future of Åland in English – polled 9.6% of the vote, and won three seats in the 2011 election. But by 2015, their support had dropped to 7.4% and they lost a seat in parliament as well.
“We are a centrist party, but the difficult thing is of course you have the language question, and the identity question and the autonomy question. It’s too big to unite us with a Finnish party. Maybe we share the same economic outlook with the Centre Party or Swedish People’s Party [in Finland], but there are other questions that divide us” explains Axel Johnsson.
More Autonomy Coming
Independence for Åland might not be on the cards any time soon, but more autonomy is just around the corner.
For the last three years, representatives from each Åland political party have been meeting with representatives from each Finnish political party, on a committee headed by former Finnish President Tarja Halonen.
They’ve been negotiating – in Swedish – a new autonomy agreement for the region, a process that has seen the region slowly gain more powers from Finland over the decades, and shaped their relationship with the mainland.
“The Åland Islands are one of the oldest autonomous regions in the world and on top of that we are also demilitarized and neutral” says Premier Katrin Sjöberg.
“It’s in our interest to develop the autonomy and we have had our first autonomy act in the 1920s, the second in the 1950s, and the third in the 1990s. And if the Åland Islands should continue to develop and be a society that is attractive, we have to also develop our autonomy” she tells News Now Finland.
The new autonomy act is on track to be put to the Finnish parliament in early 2018. If passed, it would then have to be given the green light again by the next Finnish parliament after elections, before it becomes law, as it would involve constitutional changes.
“We wanted an autonomy act similar to the Faroe Islands, where they can basically decide themselves when they want to take over a competence from the Danish state” says Axel Johnsson.
In theory, it would mean that Ålanders could take over something like licenses for doctors who want to work in the islands. At present, doctors from Sweden need to have special permissions from authorities in Helsinki; but politicians envisage being able to make their own local decisions, so it would be easier for healthcare professionals to come from Sweden without any special permissions, or language tests, for example.
“It wouldn’t give Åland automatically anything, it will still be a negotiation with the [Finnish] government in order to obtain new legislative power” says Social Democrat leader Camilla Gunell, striking a more pessimistic note.
“Really, even after the law is in power, you have to negotiate about the different fields of the law that you want to take over more” she says.
The negotiations with the Finnish committee ended in something of a compromise before the summer, and Åland politicians are waiting to see whether the Finnish parliament will see a watered-down version of the act, after it has been assessed by ministries, policy experts and the government in Helsinki.
Still, says Johnsson “it’s quite exciting times”.
Future of Independence
The question of more autonomy, or possible future independence, is a slow simmering issue among Ålanders.
You’d be hard pressed to find any who don’t want increased devolution, often centered around the fear that the use of Swedish at all levels of Finnish services is disappearing.
“I can’t see it right now that the independence movement is growing on the Åland Islands, but I think it’s very important that the Ålanders see that our autonomy is developing” says Katrin Sjöberg.
“It’s very important to have service in Swedish as well, and that’s a big thing and an important matter for the Ålanders” who says that 80% of young people in Åland study Finnish in school, and that she herself speaks Finnish, and studied in Vaasa on the mainland.
“But you see, we are part of Finland, but we are living in a very Swedish environment. We see Swedish television. We buy Swedish newspapers. So many of the Ålanders can’t speak Finnish, it’s true” she says.
“A lot of people in debates, they support an independent Åland, the Swedish language will disappear [in Finland] in 10 or 20 years.” says Axel Jonsson.
“I don’t think it’s the right time now, we don’t have a majority of Ålanders or parliament, but it’s something we should work for in the future.”