The small semi-autonomous Finnish island Åland wants to secede from the European Union. The reason is too much interference from Brussels. The specific aim of the independent Swedish-speaking island is to be allowed to present its case on the tax-free sale of snuff (or snus, a type of smokeless tobacco) before the European Court of Justice.
The European commission has asked that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declares Finland in breach of EU regulations for letting Åland maintain sales of this kind of smokeless tobacco – forbidden in the EU – on ferries to and from the island. Though Åland is more closely related to Sweden, it is a part of Finland and hence was not included in the opt-out of the snuff ban that Sweden negotiated when the countries joined the EU. Helsinki has wisely chosen to let Åland carry on selling snuff, because otherwise there would have been an outcry. The Swedes would not have joined the EU if they had not been allowed to keep their smokeless tobacco products, which, it should be noted, are substantially less harmful than smoking tobacco.
Åland became a part of Finland in 1921, but retained self-governance over internal matters such as education, culture, healthcare, postal services and police matters, while foreign policy, customs and monetary matters are handled by Helsinki. When Finland joined the EU in 1996, Åland agreed to join on condition that it could keep some of its crucial laws, such as retaining Swedish as the only official language, and having complete demilitarisation of the island. Another matter of importance to Åland was that the waters surrounding the island remain their own – not EU waters – allowing tax-free sales on passenger ferries from neighbouring countries.
Last Monday Britt Lundberg of Åland’s government met with European Commissioner Margot Wallström to explain that if the island is not allowed to plead its own case before the ECJ, then public opinion in Åland will turn against the EU. This may well lead Ålanders, who have had to take a number of bans from Brussels this year, including a recent hunting ban and the overall EU ban on vitamin supplements, to consider leaving the EU.
The view of the Ålanders is that they cannot keep supporting a European treaty without even having a say in matters concerning the island's own interior politics. Given that the waters surrounding Åland are not EU waters it is only reasonable that Åland should be allowed to try the dispute, although it could be argued that since the waters are not EU waters the EU should not have any say about what goes on there. Brussels, however, wants to get its hands on everything.
The key aspect of the issue is the ferry sale of Swedish style tobacco called “snus,” which is a major source of income for the island although it is technically illegal due to the EU ban. An EU ban on moist snuff applies to the whole bloc except Sweden, which has claimed that the use of snus is part of Sweden’s traditional heritage. Åland has declared that the cultural and historical bond with Sweden should make the island state eligible for the same exception. (The sale of smokeless tobacco products also takes place in Denmark – which effectively adopts the same position as the Åland government, that is to ignore it. The Swedish snus can be bought in the main train station in Copenhagen). The Finns who also use snus travel to Åland and Sweden to top up personal stocks.
However, Helsinki has announced that it will side with the European Commission on the matter, which is why the Åland government wants to bring its case before the ECJ. The Finnish state secretary for EU affairs Antti Peltomaaki says that the matter boils down to an interpretation of various EU laws. “Åland wanted snus to be classified as a grocery, like in Sweden. But Finland has decided that for health reasons, the EU ban should be supported.”
However, snus is substantially less harmful than other tobacco products, and hence the health argument should probably go the other way, favoring the use of snus rather than creating more passive smokers. So far no representative from Åland has been called to the ECJ in Luxemburg to be heard in the snus case, because, as Mr Peltmaaki said, it is not allowed by EU law and there is no room for manoeuvring. The habit of not allowing independent, semi-autonomous regions a say in their own affairs is a serious problem in the EU. This will distort the power balance between these regions and the capitals in favour of the national capitals – moving power away from the people. So much for subsidiarity!
Will Åland secede from the EU? The current EU treaties do not have rules on how and if a country can leave the union. The rules are simple and state that “this treaty has been entered for an unlimited time.”
Åland could, at least theoretically, leave the EU by tearing up the accession treaty and “negotiating it in reverse,” but such a ‘secession treaty’ would have to be agreed upon by the other member states – including Finland. However this treaty might have to be negotiated by Helsinki as well, since Ålands foreign affairs are run by the Finnish government.
To date the only similar example of a secession from the EU is when Greenland went from being a full member of the EU, as part of the Danish Commonwealth, to becoming a part of the Overseas Lands and Territories (OLT) grouping in 1985 – so it is not impossible, however unlikely it may seem. But small special regions should pay heed to this case – because its development have implications for them as well (even if they never heard of snus before).