Tiny Island of Aland Could Derail EU

Dan Drezner passes on word that Aland, a tiny island that few have ever heard, of could derail the European Union. Over chewing tobacco, no less.

In the decade since they voted to join the European Union the islanders of the Aland archipelago in the Baltic Sea have been outvoted and overruled by Brussels, time and again. Now Aland, a unique, autonomous region of Finland, is about to teach Brussels a lesson in democracy it may never forget.

Photo: Thanks to a quirk of early 20th-century history, Aland’s 26,000 people are essentially sovereign co-rulers of their home nation of Finland. As such, they can veto any international treaty that Finland wants to enter, including EU treaties. And the islanders are threatening to do just that when the European Commission attempts to revive the moribund EU constitution later this year. But last week the archipelago’s head of EU affairs, Britt Lundberg, travelled to Brussels – a day-long trek – to deliver a warning that dismally low public opinion on Europe could mean Alanders prevent Finland from ratifying the constitution.

The islanders’ revolt has been brewing for some time. First, this community of Swedish-speaking Finns lost the right to fish at sea with traditional nets. Then Alanders saw their beloved spring duck hunting virtually abolished. To the Alanders’ final outrage, local laws on consuming “snus” or Swedish chewing tobacco, are about to be quashed by the European Court of Justice.

Finland, which takes over the rotating EU presidency later this year, is committed to reviving the constitution after No votes in France and Holland last year. Parliament in Helsinki is poised to adopt a positive “position” on the treaty, as part of a plan co-ordinated with powers that include Germany and Austria. So Mrs Lundberg’s warning made the Commission take notice.

Brussels is trapped in a “Catch 22” situation of the EU’s own making. Snus, a form of chewing tobacco, has been outlawed by EU fiat in every nation except Sweden, which secured a -special opt-out as a condition of its joining the EU, and in every region – except Aland. The Commission recently took Finland to court to quash Aland’s snus law. But Finland has no power to change that law. Finland does not control laws covering health in Aland; Aland does. Aland is not allowed to defend its law before the justices in Luxembourg because the court recognises only nations. So the court is set to convict and fine Aland, without allowing the island’s government to plead its case. A ban on snus threatens serious financial harm to the capital, Mariehamn.

Like Dan, I find this quite amusing. But such is life in a quasi-confederacy. The ability of localities to undermine the common will was the principal reason the Articles of Confederation failed and had to be replaced by the U.S. Constitution.

The principle under which international politics have operated under since the Treaties of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 is national sovereignty. While EU makes a world of sense as an economic alliance, deepening it to include other issues has been incredibly difficult. The Brits, the French, the Dutch, and others want the benefits of Union, yes, but are not willing to give away their sovereignty and their culture to get them. Neither, apparently, are the Alanders.

Good for them.

Update: Map added.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chris says:

    I have been all over the Baltic and each of the Scandanavian nations, but even I could not find Aland on a map. How cool.

  2. floyd says:

    even prosperity is not a fair trade for autonomy.

  3. bryan says:

    So “chaw” is basically banned in Europe? Wow.

  4. dutchmarbel says:

    The Dutch people who voted no did so for a variety of reasons. Personally I think once you have the same money it is silly to pretend economic and politics are seperated issues.

    The constitution didn’t actually change the sovereignity issues. If Finland doesn’t ratify the constitution it doesn’t change the trap they are in now. Maybe they can come up with a creative solution. IIRC they officially decided that carrots are fruit so that Portugal could still make and sell carrot jam 🙂