Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Finnish island Aaland threatens to leave the EU


Aaland, a small semi-autonomous Finnish island, has threatened to leave the EU unless Brussels allows its case on the tax-free sale of snuff to be heard at the European Court of Justice. The commission has asked that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declares Finland in breach of EU regulations for letting Aaland uphold sales of a kind of tobacco – forbidden in the EU – on ferries to and from the island.

Meeting with communication commissioner Margot Wallstrom on Monday (6 February), Britt Lundberg of Aaland’s government argued that if the island is not allowed to plead its own case before the ECJ, public opinion in Aaland about the EU will turn negative.

In the long run, Aalanders, who this year have seen a number of bans from Brussels, such as a recent hunting ban, may consider leaving the EU. Ms Lundberg explained that Aaland could not support a European treaty without even having a say in matters concerning the island’s own interior politics.

Aaland became a part of Finland in 1921, but kept self-governance over internal matters like education, culture, healthcare, post and police matters, while foreign policy, customs and monetary matters are handled from Helsinki. When Finland joined the EU in 1996, Aaland agreed to join on condition that it could keep some of its crucial laws, such as keeping Swedish as the only official language, and having complete demilitarisation of the island.

Another matter of importance to Aaland was that the waters surrounding the island remain their own – not EU waters – allowing for tax-free sales for passenger ferries from neighbouring countries.

Swedish snuff creating the furore

The ferry-sale of Swedish style tobacco called “snus”, a brown moist powder that users shape into a wad and stick under their upper lip, is a major source of income for the island, although technically illegal.

An EU ban on moist snuff applies to the whole bloc except Sweden, which has claimed that the use of snus is part of the Swedish traditional heritage.

Swedish-speaking Aaland declared that the cultural and historical bond to Sweden should make the island state eligible for the same exception to the rule.

Finnish users, therefore, have to take ferries to Aaland and Sweden to fill up on personal stocks. Finland has announced, however, that it will side with the commission on the matter.

You say tomato I say tomato

Finnish state secretary for EU affairs Antti Peltomaaki told this website that the matter boils down to matters of interpretation of the accession treaties and other EU laws.
“Aaland 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.”

As to the fact that no representative from Aaland has been called to Luxembourg and the ECJ to be heard in the snus case, Mr Peltmaaki said that the law did not give any room for manoeuvre.
“If the court in Luxembourg let us send an Aalander to the oral hearing to fight its own battle, we would, but it is not the way the procedure regulations are,” he said, adding that all the files had been open to the Aalandish government throughout the whole case.

Another island state for secession?

Under the current EU treaties, there are no rules on how and if a country can leave the union. The rules simply say that “this treaty has been entered for an unlimited time”.

Theoretically, Aaland could very well 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.

To date, the only similar example 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.

By Teresa Küchler

This article first appeared on http://www.EUObserver.com