Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Swedish-speakers form some 5.3 per cent of the Finnish population. They live mostly in the coastal regions of Österbotten, Nyland and Åboland, and on the Åland Islands, areas inhabited by Swedish-speakers since before the twelfth century. Their social structures resemble those of the majority population.
The official bilingual status of the country has given rise to special laws and decrees. The Finnish Language Act protects the linguistic rights of the Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking populations as required by the Constitution. The Language Act of 1922 was replaced by a new Language Act that became law in 2004. This new legislation presupposes that Finnish and Swedish can operate as both majority and minority languages, depending on where and in what connection they are used.
The new Language Act addresses previous dissatisfaction with Swedish-language services provided by courts of law and other governmental authorities. However, it does not create any new language rights. Its goal is to ‘ensure the right of everyone to a fair trial and good administration, irrespective of language, and to secure the linguistic rights of an individual person without him or her needing specifically to refer to these rights’. It includes provisions, inter alia, on the right to use Finnish and Swedish before courts of law and other authorities, on the language of proceedings and the working language of the authorities, and on the language of official documents. The Act obligates the authorities to ensure that the linguistic rights of private individuals are secured in their daily practice.
Sweden is, after Germany, Finland’s largest trading partner, and this has tended to increase demand for Swedish-speakers in business circles, as has the large number of Swedish visitors who help bolster Finland’s tourist industry. There are 10 Swedish-language newspapers, as well as Swedish-language theatres and Swedish-language broadcasts on Finnish radio and television. Throughout the education system, from primary schools to the Åbo Academy University and bilingual universities, there is Swedish-language provision. However, in 2005, the government removed the Swedish language requirement from the secondary school matriculation exam, which is necessary for students to pass in order to apply to university.
The Svenska Folkpartiet (SFP), is the political party dedicated to representing the interests of Swedish speaking Finns. Despite its small size, the SFP frequently serves in Finnish coalition governments. Since 1979, it has regularly held at least one ministerial post, although it lost this role in the coalition government formed after the 2015 election. Historically, the strongest support for SFP comes from the constituency of Vasa (Finnish name: Vaasa), in western Finland in the Province of Österbotten.
In addition to the SFP, Swedish-speaking Finns also have an umbrella organization, the Swedish Assembly of Finland (Svenska Finlands folkting). Its 75 members are indirectly elected every fourth year on the basis of the outcome of municipal elections. They represent Swedish-speakers in the various political parties. The Assembly fosters the cultural needs of the Swedish-speaking population and submits initiatives to that effect to the government and other authorities. It is partly subsidized by the state.
Of the 29,000 people living on the Åland Islands, Swedish-speakers constitute the vast majority. Ninety per cent of the population lives on Fasta Åland, the largest island, and 40 per cent in Mariehamn, the only town. The Åland legislative assembly, the Lagting, has the right to pass laws in matters such as education, health and medical services, radio and television, the police, local administration and the promotion of industry. The authorities in Finland exercise competence over such areas as foreign affairs, customs and courts of justice. The Finnish state collects taxes, but the Lagting adopts the Åland budget and is also given a set percentage of the Finnish state budget to finance autonomy provisions. The Lagting appoints the Landskapsstyrelse, an executive council of between five and seven members. There is also an Ålandic Delegation, half of whom are appointed by the Finnish government and half by the Lagting. The President of Finland may impose a veto on laws passed by the Lagting if the latter has exceeded its competence or if any law affects Finnish security. The President’s decision is based on advice from the Åland Delegation.
The Åland islanders’ long-standing basic industries of shipping, agriculture, and fishing are declining, but tourism has been increasing. Combined with emigration to Sweden, this has helped keep unemployment low.
The Åland Islands have long been Swedish-speaking, and when Finland declared independence the islanders wanted reunification with Sweden. The question was referred to the League of Nations. In 1921 it was decided that Finland should retain sovereignty over the islands, and Finland in return agreed to respect and preserve the islands’ Swedish language and culture. The 1920 Autonomy Act soon proved inadequate and was replaced in 1951 and again in 1993. This Act too became outdated, and the present Act on the Autonomy of Åland came into force in June 2004. A protocol on the Åland Islands (Protocol No. 2) was also attached to the Act of Accession of Finland into the EU (1995).
The resolution of the Åland dispute had a decisive impact on how the Swedish question was to be settled in mainland Finland. The Finland Swedes had to abandon their proposals for four Swedish cantons similar to the Swiss model. Instead, the Swedish language retained its status as a national language together with Finnish. Section 14 of the 1919 Constitution (as amended in 1995) declared that the educational, cultural, and social needs of the Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking populations should be taken care of in accordance with similar principles. The original formulation had been ‘the cultural and economic needs … according to the same principles’. The new Constitution of Finland, which was adopted by parliament in 1999 and which entered into force on 1 March 2003, affirms that the public authorities shall provide for the cultural and societal needs of the Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking populations of the country on an equal basis (Section 17).
In 2006, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to declare Finland in breach of EU regulations for letting Åland maintain sales of smokeless tobacco (snuff) – forbidden in the EU – on ferries to and from the island. Snuff is traditionally enjoyed by many Swedes. But since Åland is a part of Finland it was not included in the opt-out of the EU-wide snuff ban that Sweden negotiated when it joined the EU: Sweden had declared that the use of moist snuff is part of its national heritage. The Åland islanders have also argued that because of their cultural and historical bond with Sweden, their territory is also eligible for the same exemption. The sale of snuff on duty-free ferries has also been an important source of income for Åland. However, Helsinki announced that, on health grounds, it would side with the European Commission on the matter, which is why the Åland government wanted to bring its case before the ECJ. Snuff was finally banned on Åland in 2007. The dispute did not end then, however; as a related debate concerning the applicability of EU’s Lisbon Treaty to Åland showed.
When Finland joined the EU in 1996, Åland agreed to join on condition that it could keep some of its crucial laws, such as retaining Swedish as the only official language, and having complete demilitarization of the island. Another matter of importance to Åland was that the waters surrounding the islands remain their own – not EU waters – allowing tax-free sales on passenger ferries from neighbouring countries. In June 2006, Britt Lundberg of Åland’s government met with European Commission officials to explain that if the island is not allowed to plead its own case before the ECJ, then public opinion in Åland will turn against the EU and may lead Åland islanders, to consider leaving the EU. The ECJ ruled that the ban was consistent with EU law and could remain in place, however the Constitutional Law Committee of the Finnish parliament later decided that Finland could ratify the Lisbon Treaty while excluding and rendering the treaty inapplicable to the Åland Islands.
While these debates focussed on very specific issues, such as the sale of snuff and tax-free sales, ultimately they related to local cultural practices, the economic viability of the Åland Islands, and most crucially, the islanders’ participation rights both nationally and at the EU level.
In 2016, there was a public debate in Finland concerning an opinion poll conducted among Swedish-speaking Finns. While the number polled was small, a large majority of those responding said that they felt vulnerable speaking Swedish in public places. Over half had actually been threatened or experienced either verbal or physical abuse. Respondents linked this trend to the increased support to the right-wing Finns Party (previously the True Finns), and the fact that the Svenska Folkpartiet (SFP) was for the first time in decades no longer part of a ruling coalition government. Despite its small size, while in government the SFP was viewed as guarantor for the official status of the Swedish language.