Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Tuesday, 26 August 2008 17:13 UK

Islands give Finns treaty problem

By Laurence Peter
BBC News

Aland map

A tiny autonomous archipelago off Finland could soon add to the EU's Lisbon Treaty woes.

The Aland Islands, which lie between Sweden and Finland, have yet to vote on the EU's reform treaty - and a No would further undermine its legal credibility. Irish voters rejected the treaty in June.

Under the act of autonomy with Finland, the islands - home to just 27,000 people - have the right to vote separately on EU treaties.

The Finnish parliament has already ratified the Lisbon Treaty, but now it is the turn of the 30-member Aland assembly.

Aland MPs want a bigger say over EU legislation before agreeing to Lisbon. That probably means Finland will first have to change the act of autonomy to give the Aland assembly more influence.

The reform treaty - aimed at improving decision-making in the enlarged EU - cannot take effect unless it is ratified by all 27 member states.

Snuff dispute

When Finland - including the Aland Islands - joined the EU in 1995, "Aland did not get enough influence," Susanne Eriksson, Deputy Secretary General of the Aland Parliament, told the BBC.

"The most important thing is we would like the possibility to defend ourselves in the European Court of Justice," she said.

Aland parliament building
The 30-member Aland assembly has voted on EU treaties before

The Aland Islands, whose people speak Swedish, were at the centre of an EU dispute last year over oral tobacco. A type of moist snuff called snus is traditionally used in Nordic countries.

Current EU law bans oral tobacco in all member states except Sweden, which manufactures a form of snus deemed to be less harmful to health.

In October 2007 the European Commission referred Finland to the European Court of Justice for a second time for failing to comply with an earlier court ruling on oral tobacco sales.

The commission said that Aland legislation still allowed oral tobacco sales on ships registered in the islands and that tourists as well as islanders could buy the tobacco there.

It asked the court to impose a fine of about 2m euros (1.6m) on Finland, with a daily penalty payment of 19,828 euros if Finland failed to comply. The court has not yet ruled on the case.

Archipelago in Baltic Sea
Autonomous part of Finland since 1920
Land area: 1,551sq km (599 sq miles) - main island forms more than 70%
Population: About 27,000, nearly all on main island

"The problem is, Finland agreed with the commission," Ms Eriksson told the BBC News website on Tuesday. "So Aland got no chance to defend itself. If there are penalties for Finland to pay, then according to the act of autonomy Aland could be obliged to pay part of them."

A senior Finnish justice ministry official, Jaana Jaaskelainen, said "it would create a very awkward situation for the Aland Islands if they rejected the Lisbon Treaty - we don't have experience of such a matter".

Finland wants to reach a deal with the islanders soon, as the Finnish president is due to sign the treaty ratification law in September.

The Aland Islands also want to have an MEP to represent them in Brussels, as part of the Finnish team - and that is among the issues under discussion with the Finnish government.

Local laws

Helsinki is now trying to reach a new deal with the Aland MPs on their powers in relation to EU policy, Ms Jaaskelainen, head of the justice ministry's EU legislation unit, told the BBC.

The Finnish parliament can't represent Aland in our fields of competence
Susanne Eriksson
Aland parliament official

When the islands joined the EU they secured various exemptions from EU law, covering local taxation and restrictions on non-residents' rights to own property and operate services on the islands.

A two-thirds majority is needed for the Aland parliament to adopt the Lisbon Treaty. "Today there is a strong feeling among our politicians that there is not a qualified majority in favour of Lisbon," Ms Eriksson said.

"All of our political parties say 'We'd like to say yes, but we're interested in first getting decent conditions'," she explained.

The Republic of Ireland was the only EU member state to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The other countries that have not yet ratified it are the Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden.

Critics see the treaty as further evidence of a federalist, pro-integration agenda at work in the EU. They say the treaty is just a modified version of the EU constitution, rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Another of Aland's conditions is that it wants its parliament to have a vote in cases where it feels EU legislation violates its competence.

"The Finnish parliament can't represent Aland in our fields of competence," Ms Eriksson said.

Moreover, a qualified majority is needed in the Finnish parliament to change the act of autonomy - and that is by no means certain, she added.

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