Åland is an autonomous, demilitarised, Swedish-speaking region of Finland.
The largest island is the main island of Åland, which makes up 70 per cent of the Islands’ total land area and is home to 90 per cent of the population. The longest distance from north to south is 50 km and from east to west 45 km. Despite its relatively small size, there are 912 km of public roads in Åland.
The population of Åland is currently at an all-time high. 29 914 persons are living in Åland. 11 724 of them live in Mariehamn, the only town. 16 150 live in the countryside and 2 040 persons are living in the archipelago. (31.3.2020)
More statistics at Statistics and Research Åland’s website (English)
The Parliament has 30 members, who are elected every four years by secret ballot under a system of proportional representation. The voting age is 18, but the right to vote and stand for election is also dependent on possession of right of domicile in Åland.
Åland’s political parties are independent from parties outside Åland, but have similar ideological foundations as their counterparts in Finland and other countries.
Åland’s autonomy gives it the right to pass laws in areas relating to the internal affairs of Åland and to exercise its own budgetary power. Åland’s legislature, its “parliament”, is known as lagtinget. The Parliament appoints the regional Åland Government, landskapsregeringen. Åland’s autonomy is regulated by the Act on the Autonomy of Åland passed by the Parliament of Finland.
An amendment of the Autonomy Act must follow the same legislative procedure as constitutional amendment but requires the consent of the Parliament of Åland. The division of power between Åland and Finland can thus only be changed on a consensual basis. The current Autonomy Act, the third in line, entered into force on 1 January 1993.
Read the Act on the Autonomy of Åland
The laws adopted by the Åland Parliament are referred to the Finnish President, who has a right of veto only in two cases: if the Parliament has exceeded its legislative authority or if the bill would affect Finland’s internal or external security. The President bases his decision on the opinion of a body known as the Åland Delegation and occasionally also on the opinion expressed by the Supreme Court. Half the members of the Åland Delegation are appointed by the Finnish Government and half by the Åland Parliament.
The Autonomy Act lists the areas where the Åland Parliament has the right to pass legislation. The most important of these are:
- education, culture and the preservation of ancient monuments
- health and medical care, the environment
- promotion of industry
- internal transports
- local government
- postal communications
- radio and television
In these areas Åland functions practically like an independent state with its own laws and administration. In those areas where the Åland Parliament does not have law-making powers, Finnish State law applies in the same way as in other parts of the country.
- foreign affairs
- most areas of civil and criminal law
- the court system
- State taxation
To ensure that Åland’s interests are taken into account also in these areas, Åland has a representative in the Finnish Parliament. Åland’s Member of Parliament is elected in the same way as other Finnish MPs.
The Government of Åland
The Government of Åland, which may have up to eight members, is headed by the Chairman, lantrådet. The Government of Åland is appointed by the Parliament according to parliamentary principles after negotiations among the various political factions. The objective is to achieve a government which enjoys the support of as wide a majority as possible, but a minority government is also possible.
The Government of Åland is assisted by an administration. The administration mainly comprises the regional civil service and has six departments. The Government of Åland is responsible for all areas of government in which the Autonomy Act devolves authority to Åland. The Åland government and civil service thus handle tasks which in other parts of Finland are handled by the Finnish Government, their ministries and various central government authorities.
Apart from passing laws, the main task of the Parliament is to distribute the budget of Åland. The income consists of Åland’s own revenues and a lump sum received from the Finnish Government, which constitutes a form of repayment of a part of the taxes paid by Åland to the Finnish State.
The State collects taxes, duties and fees also in Åland. In return, the Finnish Government places a sum of money at the disposal of the Åland Parliament. The sum is 0.45 per cent of total Government income, excluding Government loans. Åland uses this “lump sum”, about € 243 million in 2019, to pay for services that would otherwise be provided by State authorities.
Since 1970, Åland has had its own representation in the Nordic Council. The Parliament of Åland appoints two representatives to the Council, who together with the representatives appointed by the Åland Government, form the Ålandic delegation to the Nordic Council. The Åland Government also participates in the work of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Åland in the EU
Foreign affairs is not transferred to Åland under the Autonomy Act, but remains under the control of the Finnish Government. Even so, Åland has a degree of influence on international treaties that contain provisions relating to areas where Åland is the competent authority. The Autonomy Act states that an international treaty of this kind entered into by Finland requires the consent of the Parliament of Åland to become valid also in Åland.
Thus, when Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, Åland’s accession was dependent on the consent of the Parliament. After the population had expressed its opinion in two separate referendums and it had been decided that Åland’s relationship to the EU would be regulated in a special protocol, the Parliament of Åland expressed its consent.
The protocol, which is part of Finland’s treaty of accession, states that Åland shall be regarded as a third territory with respect to indirect taxation. It also contains certain special provisions relating to the purchase of real property and the right to conduct a business in Åland, and confirms Åland’s special status under international law. The Euro was introduced as the currency of Åland on January 1st 2002.
The Autonomy Act devolves responsibility to Åland’s governing bodies for many of the tasks that are administered by national authorities in the rest of Finland. The judiciary, tax collection, customs, surveying and the coast guard, however, are the responsibility of the State.
The County Administration is the general Finnish Government agency in Åland. The Finnish Government’s representative in Åland is the Governor, who is appointed by the Finnish President in consultation with the Speaker of the Parliament of Åland. His duties involve chairing the Åland Delegation and opening and closing the sessions of the Parliament on behalf of the President.
Åland is divided into 16 municipalities. As local government is a regional concern, the rules relating to municipality self-government are contained in an Ålandic law, i.e. one passed by the Parliament. The municipalities’ decision-making power is exercised by the local council, which is elected through general elections for a term of four years.
To be able to vote and be a candidate in municipal elections it is necessary to be of age, and to possess the right of domicile, or to have been a permanent resident in Åland during the year prior to election day. Åland’s largest municipality is its only town, Mariehamn, which is home to over 40 per cent of the Islands’ population. Mariehamn was founded in 1861 and is the centre of political and economic activity in Åland. Out of the other municipalities on the main island, Jomala, Mariehamn’s neighbour, is the largest. The smallest municipality in Åland, and all of Finland, is Sottunga in the archipelago.
Åland is demilitarised. This means that there may be no military presence here and that the Islands may not be fortified. Åland is also neutralised, and must therefore be kept outside the theatre of war in case of conflict.
When Åland was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1809 the Islands’ new rulers initiated the construction of a large fortress at Bomarsund on the eastern side of the main island. During the Crimean War, French and British troops attacked and seized the fortress, and at the ensuing peace negotiations held in Paris in 1856, Åland was demilitarised through a one-sided commitment from Russia.
When the League of Nations resolved the issue of Åland’s constitutional affiliation in 1921 a decision was also taken to draw up an international convention. The convention, which confirmed the demilitarisation of 1856 and also neutralised Åland, was signed by ten states. Russia is not a party to the 1921 convention, but the 1940 Moscow Treaty on the Åland Islands and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty contain provisions on the demilitarisation of Åland. Neutralisation is not mentioned, however.
More about the demilitarisation and neutralisation at the Åland Peace Institute
Åland has complete autonomy in the area of education. The language of tuition in all local schools is Swedish. The nine-year school, which is run by the municipality authorities, provides a broad general education. English is obligatory, while Finnish, French and German are optional. Åland’s schools are relatively small. The tiny secondary schools in the archipelago, which enable children to study in their home parish until the end of their statutory period of schooling, have proved a successful local initiative. Åland provides college/upper secondary-level education in shipping, commerce, tourism, medical care, domestic economy, technology and farming, all of which are important to the local economy. An exam from Ålands lyceum, a school offering three-year theoretical courses, prepares students for university studies. Most local youths who go on to pursue university-level studies leave Åland for a while to attend a university in Sweden or Finland.Today Åland also has its own college of higher education. The Åland Polytechnic offers a wide range of courses leading to vocational degrees
Trade and industry
Åland is a small society with an open economy that is dependent on trade with neighbouring regions. The Islands’ location midway between two expanding economic centres, southern Finland and the Stockholm region, is a major advantage, but also makes Åland sensitive to economic fluctuations in its two neighbouring markets.
Åland has a large number of businesses and a long entrepreneurial tradition. There are currently about 2,100 businesses, of which about 600 are agricultural enterprises. About 20 companies, mainly shipping firms, banks and insurance companies, have more than 50 employees. More than 90 per cent have less than 10 employees, and many are one-man businesses.
Åland’s economy is dominated by the service sector, particularly the maritime industry, which accounts for about 20 per cent of local GDP. The capital-intensive shipping industry helps to raise Åland’s GDP per capita, but income levels in Åland are not higher than the average for Finland. As Åland’s shipping companies offer more workplaces than the local labour market is able to provide, the crews also include many people living in other parts of Finland and Sweden.
Underpinning the strong growth of tourism in Åland are the frequent ferry services. In the last few years the number of arrivals has been around 2.2 million. Most return the same day, but about 420,000 guest nights are registered each year. Åland’s hotels and guesthouses have about 2,600 beds, and there are more than 2,000 holiday cottages. In the summer, many visitors arrive in their own sailing or motorboats, and stay in one of Åland’s 20 or so guest harbours. About 30,000 guest nights are registered each year in the guest harbours.
The industrial sector in Åland is small in comparison with those of neighbouring regions, but still plays an important role from an export perspective. As local industries process local farm produce and fish, their indirect employment effect is also significant. Åland also has an interesting high-tech plastics industry with worldwide exports, as well as metals, engineering, carpentry, printing and electronics businesses.
Despite their relatively modest returns, the primary industries, agriculture and fishing, play a vital role as providers of raw produce for the food industry in the archipelago and other sparsely populated areas.
Since the economic slump in the mid 1990s Åland’s employment situation has been very good. One reason for this is the Islands’ geographical location. The proximity to Stockholm and Helsinki has enabled many young people, in particular, to work and study even in times of economic weakness at home.
A long-term need for staff in health and medical care, as well as education, is a problem that Åland shares with the rest of the Nordic region. Because of the large number of tourists who visit Åland in the summers the service sector is dependent on seasonal workers from outside Åland during high season.
In modern times shipping has been the dominating industry in Åland, and it has greatly contributed to the Islands’ current wealth. The changes faced by the Ålandic shipping industry pose a clear threat to Åland’s labour market and economy.
Åland’s cultural life is centred on a large number of societies, whereas responsibility for public cultural initiatives is shared by the regional and local authorities. About 50 societies receive funding from the returns generated by Ålands penningautomatförening (PAF), a publicly owned gaming company.
Theatre in Åland has its roots in the youth movements which arose at the end of the 19th century. Today, major productions generally take the form of a collaboration between professional artists and amateurs. The Nordic Institute in Åland, which operates under the aegis of the Nordic Council of Ministers, has played a vital role in the development of Åland’s cultural life, notably by staging several ambitious theatre productions with Nordic stage artists.
Åland also has a lively musical scene. There are several choirs and ensembles, and the Åland Institute of Music, which has about 300 students, plays a key role in local musical life. The Ålandic archipelago has provided inspiration for many writers, both now and in the past. Sally Salminen, Anni Blomqvist and, more recently, Ulla-Lena Lundberg are three local talents who have attracted a large readership.
The Ålandic landscape has also been a source of inspiration for many painters. In addition to the main Åland Art Museum, there is the smaller Önningeby Museum, which displays works by artists from the so-called Önningeby Colony. The colony was led by Victor Westerholm and was active around the turn of the century up to the outbreak of the First World War.
Åland’s strong maritime traditions are documented in the Åland Maritime Museum, which has important collections from the sailing ship era. The Islands’ long ship-building tradition has also been preserved. Local shipwrights still build wooden vessels after old models.
The Åland Museum gives a picture of Åland’s history from ancient times to the present. It is supplemented by a number of smaller collections in the countryside.
Åland has about 60 sports societies. The societies are very active and cover a wide range of winter and summer sports. Youth activities are well developed, and the various societies also devote a lot of energy to drug prevention.
The Ålandic landscape was forged many millennia ago by powerful natural forces, which are still at work today, into a distinctive archipelagic landscape consisting of thousands of islands, holmes and skerries.
The rapid changes in the landscape – from land to water, and from fields and meadows to dense, dark woods – as well as the large number of different habitats and the striking wealth of species give Åland its special character. The mosaic-like skärgård, or archipelago, and its inspiring waterways, unusual land formations and rich bird life is perhaps the natural experience that most visitors associate with Åland, as well as the red rock, rapakivi granite, which gives the Ålandic landscape its distinctive hue.
In terms of plant geography Åland lies within the Nordic “oak zone”, which is characterised by a relatively high share of broad-leaf trees such as oak, ash, elm, maple and lime as well as more southerly species of flowering plants. The mild sea climate and chalky soil also help to create a rich flora. Åland has many species of orchids and is widely known for its wooded meadows, which are richer in species than anywhere else in the country.
Nature conservation is relatively well developed in Åland, which has its own nature conservation laws, including special provisions relating to the protection of wild plant and animal species. About 50 plants, including most orchids, are protected, and so, of course, are most mammals and birds, except for those game species which may be killed during their respective shooting seasons.
Under an Åland Government resolution, all amphibians and reptiles, except the common adder, as well as some endangered butterfly species, are protected. The so-called “every man’s right”, or public right of access to privately owned land, is more limited than in other parts of the Nordic region.
There are about 40 nature reserves in Åland, which are intended to preserve different types of nature for future generations. The wooded meadows of Ramsholmen and Nåtö just outside Mariehamn are two well known examples.
Åland is a media-intensive society, with about 60 active journalists. There are two local newspapers, Ålandstidningen, which was founded in 1891, and Nya Åland, founded in 1981. Ålandstidningen is published six times a week. Nya Åland is published five days a week. The publicly owned Ålands Radio och TV Ab produces Åland Radio and distributes Swedish and Finnish public-service radio and television. There are also commercial radio- and TV-channels. The majority of Ålandic households have access to satellite channels via cable, yet surveys show that a majority prefer locally produced radio programmes and Swedish television.
Good communications are crucial to the Åland economy and the local population due to Åland’s geographical location. In winter-time 20 ferries depart from Åland to Sweden and the Finnish mainland every day, but in summer the number rises to almost the double. Since 2004 there is also a service to Estonia. Although ferries are the dominating form of transport to Åland, there are also flights between Mariehamn and the Swedish and Finnish mainlands. Locally, the archipelago is served by regional ferries which depart several times a day.