Autonomy has allowed Åland to prosper

Regional aspirations for greater autonomy and independence stir up emotions across the world. This year marks 100 years of autonomy for the Finnish region of Åland. Now, researchers have studied Åland’s autonomy and developed an extensive model for investigating the democratic qualities of self-governing regions.

States are rarely keen to hand over legislative power to regions within their borders. In many cases, such arrangements have led to the region separating itself from the parent state and becoming independent. Both China and Russia have taken a more tough-line approach to their self-governing regions, but democracies too are fighting against internal pro-independence tendencies. The United Kingdom has rejected Scotland’s request to hold a referendum on independence, and Spain has convicted Catalan separatists of sedition.

Internationally, the fact that Finland has two legislative assemblies, one in Helsinki and another in Mariehamn, is relatively little known. Provincial acts for the Åland Islands are enacted in Mariehamn, the capital of Åland, which is an autonomous self-governing and demilitarised region of Finland, in which Swedish is the only official language. Swedish is one of the two national languages of Finland and the native language of 5% of Finns. The parliament of Åland, Lagtinget, is the supreme decision-making body in the region. Åland has often been presented as a model of conflict resolution on how to address issues such as minority problems and increasing violence.

Professor of Local Administration Stefan Sjöblom and Professor Emeritus of Political Science Jan Sundberg of the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science have studied Åland’s autonomy, which was granted 100 years ago, to find out what democratic qualities are required for well-functioning self-governance. They have also developed a model for investigating self-governing regions.

“It’s interesting from an international perspective. Autonomous regions often do relatively well, in many cases even better than you would expect from an economic and governance point of view. Investigating the keys to their success is interesting,” Sjöblom points out.

Governance, not micromanagement

Social scientific research on self-governing regions has been scarce, and Åland, for example, has mostly been investigated from a legal perspective. Previous social scientific research has primarily focused on micronations. This is the gap that Sjöblom and Sundberg are now trying to fill.

“Our original research aim was to explore the administrative and governance resources that are necessary for self-governance to function. But we soon noticed that self-governance should not be analysed too narrowly; a broader perspective is required. Our model attempts to capture the most important elements of the process, the influx of resources compared to the results and outcomes,” Sjöblom says.

The qualities required for well-functioning democratic self-governance include well-functioning political governance – in this case parliamentarism –, competent civil servants who provide knowledge and reports, infrastructure, and the necessary economic conditions.

“While a degree of governance is required between the region and the state, micromanagement is not the answer. The region needs freedom of action to increase its capacity and develop its politics,” Sjöblom says.

The necessity of freedom of action has also been demonstrated by other research.

“Governance relationships are delicate issues. This applies not only to self-governing regions, but also to the relationship between a state and its regions, regardless of the system. We will also see how delicate this issue is with the establishment of the new wellbeing services counties in Finland which will increase the power of central government over social welfare and healthcare services.”

Sjöblom’s and Sundberg’s research shows that Åland’s autonomy has the attributes of success. However, they also point out that the political system has developed over a long period of time.

From poverty to prosperity

Today, Åland is a prosperous community that has benefited from the surrounding sea.

“Åland was originally a very poor region, but shipping and seafaring have provided it with income and economic growth. Nowadays, Åland also profits from wind power. In fact, it has the best preconditions in Finland for producing offshore wind power. Åland would like to gain more economic independence to be able to expand its industry and commerce,” says Sundberg.

In contrast to many other autonomous regions, Åland has not striven for full independence. Finland granted Åland autonomy as a countermove to the region’s desire to separate from Finland and unite with Sweden. Åland also seems to have benefited significantly from its autonomy.

“If Åland were not autonomous, it would be a region or province like any other in Finland. We know the difficulties associated with the regional level in Finland, which has made it more difficult for regions to act as engines of regional and local development. Through its autonomous status, Åland has been left in peace to develop itself on its own terms. It has managed to avoid the myriad reforms that have been undertaken in Finland since the country became independent,” Sjöblom notes.

“If Åland were any other Finnish region, it wouldn’t even have its own hospital, but just a health centre. Åland has created its own structures and solutions that have allowed it to maintain a level of service and a municipal structure based on small, vibrant island communities,” Sundberg continues.

However, if Åland had been reunited with Sweden, it would now be but a small municipality in the Stockholm region without access to any special solutions.

Åland asks for more flexibility

The closest comparable examples to Åland outside Finland are Greenland and the Faroe Islands, two autonomous jurisdictions within the Kingdom of Denmark. All three are islands with a relatively small population: Åland with 30,000 inhabitants, Greenland with about 56,000 inhabitants and the Faroe Islands with just over 53,000 inhabitants.

However, a major difference between Åland and the Danish regions is that Denmark takes a much more flexible approach to the Faroes and Greenland, which are allowed to enact laws and govern without interference from Copenhagen. The Danish autonomous territories can also keep the taxes they collect.

“The taxes collected in Åland are first transferred to Helsinki before funds are reallocated to the region. Legislation is subjected to rigorous review in Helsinki before being confirmed in Åland. In fact, the acts enacted in Åland undergo a much stricter review process than those enacted by the parliament in Helsinki,” notes Sundberg.

An amendment to the Act on the Autonomy of Åland is currently being drawn up, and it is precisely the strict review of regional legislation that is the bone of contention and stumbling block in this process.

“Åland would prefer greater flexibility and more power to decide on its own affairs. You could ask whether the legislative review process could be relaxed to some extent. These are the types of issues that continuously create tensions between autonomous areas and states,” says Sjöblom.

“Åland has clearly shown that it is capable of maintaining high-quality governance in its area, and there is no reason to mistrust its ability to handle even more freedoms,” notes Sjöblom, to agreement from Sundberg.

Significance of the historical process

The fact that Finland controls Åland’s law-making to such a degree is a remnant of the era when Finland was an autonomous grand-duchy of Russia. Åland gained its autonomy a few years after Finland had become independent, and when the Act on the Autonomy of Åland was drafted, the Russian model was closest to hand.

“What became clear to me while we were working on this project is the significance of the historical process. A lot has happened during the 100 years of Åland’s autonomy,” states Sjöblom.

In connection with the granting of autonomy, Åland was also demilitarised, and has since been marketed as the ‘Islands of Peace’ and an example for other countries.

“The significance of the historical process for how regions develop also goes against the idea that any model could be exported as such. Doing so could just as well lead to the opposite of what is intended, that is, full-scale secession. But it is true that Åland has also acted as an example to others from the perspectives of both constitutional law and governance policy when it comes to the regulation of self-governance and how it is handled constitutionally,” says Sjöblom.

However, comparative research shows that autonomous regions do well when compared to other kinds of regions and small states that have previously been autonomous but opted for full independence.

“Autonomy functions as a kind of framework that mobilises and activates the inhabitants and creates new types of collaboration and organisation. This highlights the benefits of being a small community. But systems require time to become established,” Sjöblom says.

Can Scotland demonstrate the significance of size for autonomous regions?

To find out what role size plays for a well-functioning autonomy, Sjöblom and Sundberg will next apply their model to the self-governing region of Scotland within the United Kingdom. Like Finland, Scotland has a population of 5.5 million people.

Sjöblom’s and Sundberg’s project group is currently exploring the qualities of self-governance in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and it has now found a collaboration partner in Scotland to investigate the significance of size.

“We intend to find out whether a larger self-governing region has more resources and thus better governance,” Sundberg explains.

“Scotland is also interesting from the perspective of Brexit. In the past decade, we have seen increasing variation in Europe, and differences between regional solutions are considerable. The model we have developed can be applied to different solutions to explore the qualities of regional governance,” Sjöblom says.


Jan Sundberg is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Helsinki. His research topics have included ethnic mobilisation, political parties, and local and national elections and election systems.

Stefan Sjöblom is professor of local administration at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki. He has investigated municipal and regional development as well as innovations and governance in the public sector. Sjöblom is the leader of the research network Democracy, Political Participation and Institutional Change and the Academy of Finland funded project Democratic Government as Procedural Legitimacy.

Nourishing future comparative studies

Jan Sundberg’s and Stefan Sjöblom’s book Det åländska självstyrets kvaliteter – Demokrati, resurser och kompetens (2021) [‘Qualities of Åland’s autonomy – Democracy, resources and competence’] examines the political, administrative and legal qualities of Åland’s autonomy as well as the characteristics of a well-functioning autonomy. Despite international interest, research on the qualities of self-governance is scarce. Sundberg and Sjöblom present a model for exploring other self-governing regions. They hope that their book will give rise to future comparative studies.

The Swedish-language book is available free of charge on the website of its publisher, the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland (SLS).


History of Åland’s autonomy

Åland was, along with Finland, a part of the Kingdom of Sweden but became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809 when Sweden was forced to relinquish Finland and Åland to the Russian Empire.

In 1917, when Finland gained its independence, the representatives of Åland’s municipalities decided to seek reunion with Sweden. Finland rejected the Ålanders’ demands and Parliament attempted to solve the problem by adopting an Autonomy Act for Åland in 1920.

Ålanders refused to accept it, and since the question of Åland’s status seemed to be leading to open conflict between Finland and Sweden, it was referred to the newly formed League of Nations.

The League of Nations granted Finland sovereignty over Åland in 1921. Finland was placed under an obligation to guarantee to the population of the islands their Swedish culture, language, local customs and the system of self-government.

Åland had become demilitarised as a result of the peace negotiations in Paris in 1856 after the Crimean War. When the sovereignty issue was solved by the League of Nations in 1921, the demilitarisation of 1856 was confirmed.

The convention also neutralised Åland. The demilitarisation was confirmed in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty.

This year marks 100 years of Åland’s autonomy. The anniversary will be celebrated and remembered in a variety of ways. The province’s jubilee year will begin on 9 June 2021 and will culminate on 9 June 2022 with the centenary of Åland’s Parliament.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland