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The story about the Åland Islands

By request from minny:

Finland is a more interesting country than you might think. It has a Swedish-speaking minority of around 5.5%, and I've got to know several of them through living in Brussels, particularly since the Swedish People's Party in Finland is a rare example of a political party representing a minority which has decided that it is liberal in political orientation. The only other one I can think of offhand is the party of the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. (I should explain that I've been loosely involved with international liberalism for over ten years.)

Also they seemed to be attracted to the same part of the world that I work on; a good friend who is a Swedish-speaking Finn working in the European Parliament has organised several conferences of Balkan liberals which I got invited to; their MEP takes a strong interest in Romania and a general interest in foreign policy; and one of their more senior members is on the board of trustees of my employers.

I know them well enough to be sensitive to the fact that they are emphatically not an ethnic minority, but a linguistic minority; they consider themselves to be ethnic Finns who happen to speak Swedish. And as someone who is Irish but cannot speak a word of the Irish language, who am I to criticise?

A few months ago, I found myself at a Brussels dinner sitting next to a gentleman who introduced himself as the former Prime Minister of the Åland Islands. I knew this much: that the Åland Islands are an autonomous archipelago between Stockholm and Turku/Åbo, owned by Finland, where the population speaks Swedish. So I shamelessly name-dropped my friends from the Swedish People's Party of Finland, and finished off the process of (I thought) ingratiating myself by expressing my childhood fascination for that great writer of the Swedish-speaking Finns, Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins.

The ex-Prime Minister was not impressed. "They," he said indignantly, "are Swedish-speaking Finns." He saw my look of consternation, and took pity on me. "We," he explained (and perhaps not for the first time, I sensed), "are Swedes under Finnish rule."

(I thought Tove Jansson must be from the Åland Islands, because I knew she had lived on an island. The ex-Prime Minister pointed out kindly to me that there are a lot of other islands much nearer the Finnish coast than the Åland Islands are, and she lived on one of them.)

After that we got on quite well, but it was a shaky start. The moral is: no matter how much you think you know, you probably still don't know enough. Or put more crisply: don't be a smartarse when talking to ex-Prime Ministers about their own country.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 12th, 2004 03:39 pm (UTC)
Ah, I knew Åland was part of Finland where Swedish was spoken but not any more than that. I doubt I'll ever talk to an ex Prime Minister of anywhere, but I will keep the advice in mind ;)
Jul. 13th, 2004 04:46 am (UTC)
*ouch!* *ouch!* *ouch!*

You are a brave, brave man for recounting this. I'd just crawl off into a dark corner and whimper.

Crazy(unless lured out by the promise of very good food and kind words...)Soph
Nov. 16th, 2004 01:45 pm (UTC)
Tove Jansson is also famous in tax law. At one time Finland had a more than 100% rate of taxation for very high earners. So if you earned more than quite a lot you actually had less money left than if you had earned a bit less. Tove J was the first person to fall into the bracket...
Great books too.
Dec. 2nd, 2007 06:52 pm (UTC)
I love the Åland Islands - went there on holiday this year and am going back again next year. Here's my entry covering the trip:


Interestingly, Torbjorn Engman, one of the Åland Islands' leading musicians, very much considers himself a Finn, and the editorial in 'Åland' newspaper on one of the days I was there was along the theme 'We are Swedish-speaking Finns'. So not everyone shares their ex-PM's view.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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