An interview is like an adventure game: you begin with your quests, your questions, and then you find yourself transported in the past and the future, in strange places, you meet adventurers and sailors, and sometimes you find more answers than what you were looking for. And at the end you are happy, and slightly disoriented to come back to reality, which was my case when stepping down the stairs in front of the Finnish parliament after meeting Elisabeth Nauclér.
She is the only Finnish Parliament member representing a very special autonomous purely Swedish-speaking region of Finland that consists of an archipelago of more than 6 500 islands in the Baltic Sea, separated from the coast of Sweden by 38 kilometres of open water to the west, and contiguous with the Finnish Archipelago Sea.
In order to understand what Elisabeth does in the Parliament, you have to travel in time back at least to the end of World War 1. After Finland proclaimed its independence in December 1917, there has discussions with Sweden, who was interested in the future of Åland islands due to their strategic position commanding the access to Stockholm harbour; and an overwhelming proportion of the almost purely Swedish-speaking population was in favour of joining Sweden. But it had been part of the Russian Grand-Duchy of Finland before the independence, and in addition Sweden being neutral was not so popular among the allies who won the war, so the League of Nations decided in 1921 that the islands would remain a province of Finland, with the condition – imposed by Sweden – that the archipelago would stay demilitarised (more precisely non-fortified) as it was since 1856 and that it would benefit of an extensive autonomy.
Finland complied and provided a statute defining this autonomy. Globally, the only substantial decision of the League of Nations was satisfyingly implemented, and there is not a lot of discussions about it any more.
The autonomous status of the islands, which in some way makes Finland a federal state even if the Åland Islands are the only autonomous region, was revised in 1951 and 1991 through Finnish legislation, and confirmed within the treaty admitting Finland in the European Union. An interesting fact is that, due to its legal autonomy, it was only possible to include the Åland islands in the EU because its Parliament had voted in favour of it after two referendums: it has been an exception among the territories with a special status in the Nordic countries, such as Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. And one of the main tasks accomplished by Elisabeth Nauclér in the Parliament is to ensure that Åland’s autonomy law is correctly implemented and respected when drafting other regulations, in order to protect the autonomy of the archipelago.
Nordic and international
Elisabeth is clearly a very special person, and it is difficult not to respect her strength, her willpower and her dedication to her islands, visible even when giving an long interview quite late after a full day in the Parliament, and doing everything she could in order to explain and justify Åland Islands’ views on the relation with mainland Finland.
It is quite difficult to find somebody more Nordic: she was born in Sweden, from a Swedish father and a Norwegian mother, and lives in Finland. In her childhood, she could see Norway from the windows of her Swedish house; she studied law in Sweden, met an Ålander, learnt Finnish in Uppsala and Helsinki Universities and settled in Mariehamn where she began in 1979 as a legislative draftsman for the Government of Åland, before becoming notary for the Parliament of Åland from 1983 to 1985. Her legal background is clearly an asset for representing Åland in the Finnish Parliament.
She adds to this CV a solid international experience, as she went on to become Secretary of the Åland Delegation to the Nordic Council from 1985-1999, while also working as a Civil Affairs Officer with the UN peacekeeping operation in former Yugoslavia from 1996-1999. Therefore she is used to political negotiation at high level in the field of international relations, a necessary skill in her position considering Åland’s islands international status.
Then there is the person, which is clearly determinant and does not hesitate to intervene in the Constitutional Committee of the Parliament to prevent infringements to the autonomy, and she stresses the excellent support she needs and gets from Åland’s government and civil servants. Because, even if Finland is a peaceful country, there has been in the past cases where an intervention in the Parliament has been necessary. She likes to say: “When it is used correctly, law is the best weapon to win battles”, and she has not lost many.
Gaming, sea birds and wind turbines
When she was Head of the Åland’s administration, there has been some agitation around the online gaming. In Åland islands, where the gaming tradition is quite strong according to Elisabeth, gaming activities are under the control of PAF, a NGO which was founded in 1966 to bring all the different Åland organisations under one roof. An independent allocation board distributes all the PAF profits to non-profit associations, organisations and good causes on the Åland Islands.
But with the development of online gaming, there was a conflict: the Finland 2001 Act on Gaming made the Finnish mainland organisation RAY the sole official provider of online gaming for the mainland – and a monopoly. However, because of better odds and prizes, many mainland Finns shunned RAY for PAF, causing officials at RAY to push for legal action. It took the form of a Parliamentary amendment which would have infringed Åland’s autonomy.
It was finally President Tarja Halonen who deferred the proposed act to the Supreme Court, with a satisfying result for Åland islands: the amendment was withdrawn. The two monopolies are however threatened by the EU who is pushing for opening the market. But, as Elisabeth Nauclér indicates: “it is better to have a public gaming system that you can control and whose gains can benefit the population, than to let it to organisations whose ethics and practices may be dubious”.
Another major issue in her days in the Åland’s administration has been the question of sea birds hunting, a holy matter for islanders. In Åland, springtime hunting has been a cultural practice for centuries but was at some moment regulated (and forbidden) by an EU Directive that countries had to implement in the national legislation. Finland prepared a law to that effect and it was finally adopted, when the Åland island government would have preferred to have another discussion with the European Commission, who considers Finland as a whole and has not yet totally understood Åland island specific international situation. There has been anyway a strong opposition to this measure in the Åland Islands, with the threat of an expensive fine by the European Commission. It has even facilitated the arrival of the Independence Party in the Åland’s Parliament.
Elisabeth Nauclér had recently to fight for wind turbines. This time, the Finnish administration, when preparing a law to facilitate the investments in wind turbines by private companies, indicated in the explanatory text presenting the law that the investments on Åland’s territory was simply not covered by the law. Elisabeth Nauclér, knowing that this disposition, which was a disadvantage for Åland islands, was clearly illegal and obtained that it is withdrawn from the text, with the support of the Ministry of Justice.
This wind turbines case brings her to remark that Finland could think in a different way and enjoy the benefits that the Åland Islands are bringing to the country by supporting its development, instead of trying to simply apply the general rules of the mainland to a place which is very different and should benefit from more freedom. In the case of the wind turbines, she stresses that Finland has committed to attain a high percentage of renewable energy, and that there is a lot of wind in the islands: Åland could be the Finnish pilot region in this domain, and help the whole Finland to reach its EU objectives. But officials from Ministries are not always in line with this practical approach.
April elections in the context of the preparation of a new autonomy act for Åland
Now, Elisabeth Nauclér is facing the April elections, with 2 lists in competition for only one position, and a limit of 4 names on each list, a specificity of the region. In practice, it means that even the majority of parties support her list, she is also in competition with the other people on her list. After eight years at the service of Åland in Helsinki, she wants to continue to participate in a major project for the Åland Islands: a new law on autonomy is in a preparatory phase, and the next 4 years are going to be crucial.
The preparation of the new law has already begun. The initial phase of the preparation was handled by Finnish authorities with limited collaboration with Ålanders, but the situation is now better and clearer: on 19 September 2013, the Government appointed a Parliamentary Committee to draw up a proposal for the reform of the system of self-government in Åland. The Committee consists of representatives from all parliamentary groups as well as the political parties in Åland. It is headed by President Tarja Halonen, who, after her intervention in the online gaming case, is seen as a real-life hero in Åland. Elisabeth Nauclér is an observer in the Committee.
From an outsider point of view, it is true that questioning the existing law may be useful, more than 25 years after the last serious revamping, as the world has certainly changed. In addition, Finland is in the European Union with Åland islands. It also can be felt by an external observer that the present act is presented in a way which is facilitating conflicts: it has a list of matters which are under the responsibility of Åland authorities, and a list of matters under the responsibility of the Finnish state. But when something has been forgotten or is new, the responsibility is not defined, as it is the case for Internet matters, and it may lead to difficulties and in some cases conflicts.
It is probably for this reason that Åland authorities try to push the Finnish state to define clearly what they consider their responsibility (such for example as defence, foreign affairs…) and the rest would be under the responsibility of the Åland Islands. The Committee has already provided its preliminary report, which is not yet defining precisely what will happen, but has laid down some principles. In particular, it is planned that:
“The Act on the Autonomy of Åland should be shorter and less detailed than the current Act, and rather lay down framework regulations defining Åland’s status and autonomy guaranteed by the Constitution. The Act on the Autonomy of Åland should be supplemented with one or more acts enacted in the ordinary legislative procedure with the approval of the Åland Parliament”.
It also contains provisions on an increased autonomy on economic matters, and the possibility for Åland to “be able to decide on its own to what extent it takes over new powers from the State”, after “negotiations and an agreement with the State, in order to establish the administrative and economic consequences of the delegation of powers”.
Elisabeth Nauclér being an observer in the Committee is following its work, which will allow for her to be consulted on request, and, if she is elected at the right time, to be in the Parliament when the new act will be discussed.
A dedicated politician with a good dose of sisu
On more general matters linked to politics, she is not involved in the same way than mainland politicians, in particular on this large group of topics which fall under the responsibilities of the Åland’s government, such for example as municipal organisation or health and social affairs. She has shown an interest on equality matters, as a member of the Employment and Equality Committee of Parliament.
But she is not expressing herself on Finnish internal topics in these domains, but she made some interesting comments linked to the specificity of Åland on immigration and on Russia. Concerning immigration, she noted that the sensitivity in the islands is quite different from the mainland, as it has always been a multi-ethnic and multicultural place: among the almost 30 000 inhabitants, you can find over 90 nationalities and 40 languages. This comes from the fact that Åland has always been an open society. She added that she is herself an immigrant, and the only Finn by naturalisation elected in the Parliament.
The relations with Russia are another specificity of Åland Islands, as she pointed: there is a Russian consulate in Mariehamn whose main role is to supervise the demilitarisation of the islands, in application of the existing international agreements, as the Åland archipelago is key for the naval domination of the Baltic Sea.
I have also discovered during the interview and its preparation some of Elisabeth’s personal characteristics, that are certainly useful in her activities, and also makes meeting her an interesting experience. She has what is in Finland called “sisu”, determination and patience. All her activities in the Parliament prove it, but also she is to my knowledge the only elected politician in all Finland who has in the last years published an article on her blog every week (except some summer holidays), to report to her electors about her activities.
If you go through it (here) and you understand Swedish, you will learn also that she has a strong sense of humour tainted with a bit of feminism for example when she mocks slightly a draft law in discussion where it is planned that citizens over 65 years would not have to pay for fishing licenses, officially because it is a good activity for men in this age. She is asking herself: is it fair, when it advantages men? So what kind of activity would be the equivalent for women?
And also I find it quite revealing that she expressed on her website her support for Jutta Urpilainen, ex-leader of the Social Democratic Party, indicating that she finds her attitude “brave and admirable” when, after having been replaced and removed from the political scene in a not so elegant way, Ms Urpilainen has just sat in the Finnish Parliament as a modest member and has refused the consolation of a nice and well-paid job in the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. Elisabeth Nauclér notes sarcastically that offering a top job abroad is one way to get rid of strong women.