1980 – 2021
Finland had already applied for membership in the European Union when the new Act on Autonomy entered into force. Joining this vast free trade area was regarded as a threat in the Åland Islands, because it could mean the end of the vital tax-free sales for the shipping companies. The Provincial Government demanded that Åland would be granted an exemption, which was first agreed upon by the State and later also by the EU. A wording about the international judicial status of Åland was annexed to the treaty by the member states of the European Union. In the referendum, the inhabitants of the province supported membership in the EU by a 73,6 % share of votes. Thus, Åland became a territory outside the EU in terms of customs and taxation from 1st January 1995, which naturally caused practical problems for the entrepreneurs in the province.
Tax-free sale could continue on the passenger ships calling a port on Åland, but it was not the only benefit of the EU-treaty. Minimum values for consignments subject to value added tax agreed upon with the state authorities opened possibilities to capitalize on the special EU-status of Åland. The postal services of Åland soon had a large logistics centre built for the purpose of tax-free deliveries outside the Åland Islands.Since Åland became part of the EU the representatives of the Province have repeatedly demanded a seat in the Parliament of the EU for a representative of Åland; currently Finland has 14 representatives there. Finland has rejected this request by referring e.g. to the small population of the province.
Opinion polls have repeatedly showed that the inhabitants of the Province are satisfied with the status of the Åland Islands. However, there is dissatisfaction particularly among those who cherish the memories from the years of fight for annexation to Sweden. The Fria Åland party which campaigned in the 1980s for more extensive autonomy and independence for Åland remained a marginal phenomenon. The Ålands Framtid party, founded at the beginning of the 21st century, has fared better, however, and has today (2021) one representative in the Parliament of Åland. Reports compiled by Finnish and Swedish Professors on the prerequisites for the independence of the Åland Islands have also been published.
As the preparation of a new Act on Autonomy has started, the critical voices on Åland have been muted. A separate mandate to impose taxes, detached from Finnish taxation, remains an important objective for the Province of Åland, but the consequences for surrounding regions are difficult to assess. The hardening attitudes towards so-called tax havens will not necessarily promote acceptance of a pursuit towards a system where the State would only be responsible for foreign policy matters and the defense of Åland. (Ålanders are exempt from conscription.)
During the last decades, the Åland Islands dispute and the resulting autonomy have been marketed as a peaceful solution model for crises (Ålandsexemplet). The Head of State and Government of Finland have, at the request of Ålanders, taken part in these pursuits, which have been promoted especially by Ålands fredsinstitut (the Peace Institute of Åland). However, it is not easy to apply this model to crises of a quite another character, aggravated by old animosities.
At the end of the period of Soviet socialism, the Baltic Sea was marketed as a Sea of Peace. Recent developments are not in line with this admirable vision. Military tensions have grown in the Baltic Sea during the 21st century and even Åland is affected. Russia decided to reopen its consulate in Mariehamn in 2003 (inactive since 1997), which reflects the growing interest of a great power. The demilitarization of Åland has, however, worked well during periods of peace. Unfortunately, that has not been the case during wars.