Comparing Local Anniversaries: Trentino versus the Åland Islands

7 min

The year 2022 is an important anniversary year for two territories that enjoy wide political autonomy, the Aland Islands (Finland) and Trentino-South Tyrol (Italy). Two different cases, but which are recognised worldwide as two successful self- government examples. We talked about it with Professor in international law Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark.

Una mappa delle Isole Åland

This year marks an important anniversary both for the autonomy of the  Åland Islands and for the autonomy of the Trentino-South Tyrol region. The Islands’ autonomy is 100 years old, ours is 50 years old. We know that in the case of Trentino-South Tyrol, the road to the so-called ‘second autonomy’ – the one that began with the second Statute of Autonomy (1972) and empowered the two provinces of Trento and Bolzano – was long and difficult. Just consider the political tensions within the Region; the German minority that did not feel sufficiently protected; the rigid relations with the State; the complex relationship with Austria and the terrorism of the 1960s. How was that issue resolved? In 1961 a joint commission (the Commission of 19) was set up: members of the State, the Region, Italians and South Tyroleans sat down for the first time at the same table to seek a solution. The method of dialogue led that commission to write in three years the so-called “Package” (Il Pacchetto), the basis of the second Statute of Autonomy. Without that work, without that method, without those political personalities, provincial autonomy as we know it today would not have been achieved. In the case of Åland, was there a similar path? Can it be said that this autonomy also needed the method of discussion to build itself?

In 2021-2022 we celebrate 100 years since the adoption of the Åland Agreement, or if you so wish, the Åland solution which dealt with a multitier problem. The Åland agreement was adopted within the League of Nations in June 1921. Already in 1919 Finland had adopted its first constitution as a newly established independent state in the aftermath of the first world war and the Russian revolution. The Finnish parliament adopted in 1920 a first Autonomy Act for the Åland Islands, an effort which was found inadequate, badly negotiated with and thereby rejected by the Ålanders. The Åland Agreement of June 1921 recognised the sovereignty of Finland over the islands, thus rejecting claims by Sweden, coupling this sovereignty to three sets of settlements: Firstly, the territorial autonomy of the islands; secondly, the cultural safeguards connected to issues such as language, education, exemption from military service; thirdly, the security aspects linked to the demilitarisation (non-fortification) of the islands which was then complemented by the provisions on neutralisation in a separate convention that was negotiated in the autumn of 1921. The Åland settlement of June 1921 was realised domestically through the so called Guarantee Act (1922) and only thereafter was the settlement and the autonomy solution found acceptable by the Ålanders too. The Åland parliament under this new system convened for the first time on June 9th 1922, so this is a core date for highlight of the autonomy aspects. One may therefore say that the Åland settlement required multilevel discussions both at the domestic and the international level (both bilaterally and multilaterally) why also its political and legal entrenchments are found at both these levels, and today also at the level of primary EU law. Still today, the need for discussion and adaptation persists, for instance with regard to revisions of the Autonomy Act (one such revision process is on-going) but also with regard to the international dimensions of the Åland Islands, including the demilitarised and neutralised status. One could perhaps say that such peace agreements and multilevel settlements create webs of relations and webs of rights and obligations ensuring as balanced compromises as possible under circumstances.       

In Trentino-South Tyrol in the years 2016-2018 an attempt was made to consider further statutory revision. Two commissions of experts, one for the Province of Trento and one for the Province of Bolzano, formulated two documents to set the path towards the “Third Statute”. The Aland Islands are also working on a renewal. In which direction?

The Autonomy Act of the Åland Islands has been comprehensively revised twice (in 1951 and 1993). Also after the entry of Finland and the Åland Islands in the European Union there were important revisions implemented (in particular a new Chapter 9a re. EU matters). The Åland Islands parliament and government initiated a process for a revision of the Autonomy Act already in 2010. Later on there was appointed in 2013 a bilateral (Åland – Finland) political committee under former president Tarja Halonen. It presented its final report and recommendations in 2017. The final report included eleven core areas of recommendations, including the possibility of a more simplified transfer of competences, adapted economic system, role and involvement of the Åland Islands in international affairs as well as the procedures of legality and constitutionality checks of legislation. However, until now it is mainly the economic system that has been adapted while the rest of issues seem to have stagnated. One additional complicating factor has been the effect of the pandemic on the communication between governments and the respect for the division of competences in areas of de facto overlaps.    

Una veduta dall’alto

The Trentino-South Tyrol and the Aland Islands are considered internationally as models for building systems of self-government capable of creating contexts of peaceful coexistence, resolving conflicts and guaranteeing rights. Of the two cases in question, which elements do you think can be exported to areas of the world where greater autonomy is being demanded?

We try to use the term “The Åland Example” rather than model, in order to underline that it is obvious and clear that no direct and complete transposition can take place meaningfully from one context to another. That said, ideas, concepts and lessons from one case can well be useful as inspiration and source of knowledge for another case. In fact, one may argue that human progress relies exactly on such processes of learning by the doing of others. Law and legal studies use this method extensively through comparative work, as is the case of course in many other social sciences. The Åland Example has been generally summarised as being comprised of three core elements, addressing considerations of: a) identity/language/culture; b) security (Ålandic police and border guards as part of the state authorities / ministry of interior but of course also the demilitarisation and neutralisation; and c) political power settlement (Finnish sovereignty but internationally entrenched solution and autonomy with exclusive competences for the parliament and government of the Åland Islands). To this one may add that the 1921 settlement also rested upon an understanding of the necessary economic viability of the system.

Anniversaries are always times to celebrate what has already been done, to get lost in reminiscing, and rarely are these occasions seen to reflect and set new directions. What does this centenary mean for your autonomy?

I cannot pronounce about the official aspirations. The Åland Islands Peace Institute is an independent foundation that works with research, information and education and more generally with discussions on our three core areas of interest: territorial autonomy, security and the cluster minorities & identity. The Åland Islands Peace Institute shall celebrate its 30th anniversary in autumn 2022 []. In general one may say that the commemoration started in June 2021 (so 100 years after the decisions taken in the League of Nations) in pandemic mode and will continue until summer 2022 (9th of June is the date of the first session of the Åland Parliament in 1922). So, both the international and the local dimensions are included.

The history of the Aland is also significant for another feature of its autonomy: it is a neutral and demilitarised zone. Are these two aspects that make autonomy play a significant international role?

The Åland Islands are a demilitarised and neutralised zone according to a long series of international agreements, multilateral as well as bilateral or trilateral. Demilitarisation means that Åland must not be fortified and the right to a military presence within the demilitarised zone is strictly limited. Neutralisation means that the Åland zone (stretching three nautical miles from land) must be kept out of hostilities at time of war. Nowadays the regime is considered as having a customary law status. The most important agreements are:
– Convention on the Demilitarization of the Åland Islands, 1856 (as part of the Paris Treaty ending the Crimean War)
– Convention on the Non-Fortification and Neutralisation of the Åland Islands, 1921 (as part of the Åland solution of 1921 within the League of Nations)
– Convention Finland – Soviet Union 1940 (includes demilitarisation clause)
Peace Treaty between the allies and Finland 1947 (includes a brief demilitarisation clause).
The demilitarisation and neutralisation provisions, do not preclude the exercise of self-defence by Finland, even though the modes for it are regulated especially in the 1921 convention. The regime is considered as having offered stability to the region. See for instance the speech by the President of the Republic in October 2021 And my own comment on that occasion here:

Why celebrate an anniversary of a territory’s autonomy? An anniversary is a date that recurs, a day that is fixed to keep in mind generally the end of something and the beginning of something else. A symbolic moment to remember building memory. And especially for a community, a territory with self-government traditions, it is important to have a birthday. Political autonomy is a risk by definition. It is a risk that a territory – often a region – assumes by taking responsibility for managing complex, possibly conflicting situations, specific needs directly, that need special institutional mechanisms, appropriate cultural tools, models of relations alternative to State ones. And the more a political system thrives on relationships, subtle dynamics, challenges and negotiations, the more it needs maintenance and pit stops to figure out how to continue.

Elisa Bertò works as a project manager at EGTC/Euregio Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino and is a guest researcher at the Department of Sociology and Social Research at University of Trento. She obtained her PhD in Political Philosophy at University of Pisa. Her research field is the territorial decentralization of political power and particularly concerns the historical development of systems of territorial autonomies within the modern state.

Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark is the director of the Åland Peace Institute since 2007. She is a lawyer, with a PhD and associate professorship in international law from Uppsala University. Sia has worked at and with civil society organizations, universities and research institutions around the world. During 2002-2006 and 2010-2014, she was an expert member of the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on National Minorities. She was the committee’s president 2012-2014. Spiliopoulou Åkermark has also served as scientific advisor for the Institute of Minority Rights at EURAC. Sia has led several legal and interdisciplinary projects and published several books, edited volumes and articles. 

(Aggiornato al 3 giugno 2022)