The Liberal Katrin Sjögren has been the head of Åland’s autonomous government since November last year, and the challenges are queuing up. Cuts are needed everywhere, Åland’s largest factory is threatened with closure and a high profile wind power project looks set to get blown away.
Katrin Sjögren worked as an A&E nurse for many years – in Åland, Sweden and Norway. This prepared her well for politics. You become used to almost constantly being at the centre of the storm and to perform advanced problem solving for big and small issues.
During last October’s parliamentary elections she led her party The Liberals for Åland to victory. The party is close to the Swedish People’s Party of Finland and the Liberal People’s Party in Sweden. The main competitor, Åland Center, did get the same number of seats, seven out of 30, but the Liberals secured a few more votes.
Katrin Sjögren was therefore tasked with forming a government, and quickly went to work. Soon it was clear she would cooperate with the Social Democrats and the centre-right Moderates, rather than with the Centre party which had been part of Åland’s government since the 1970s.
There are seven ministers in today’s government.
“You need to be multi-talented in order to manage the job. We all share a secretary but have no staff of our own. When we need to go somewhere, we drive ourselves or cycle – unless it’s a special occasion like when the president is visiting.”
On the small island of Åland you are always close to the voters and to your political opponents. As lantråd – Åland’s head of government – you are on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are no free zones, not even if you take the dog for a walk or go food shopping. If people have something they want to say, they come and say it.
“This is not a problem for me, quite the opposite. It is good that people approach me, it allows me to explain. It is worse for my family. They think it is hopeless that a short trip on the town might take hours,” says Katrin Sjögren, who joined politics for real in 1999 when he was elected a councillor for Mariehamn.
She first joined Åland’s parliament in 2003. She has also been a government minister before, spending four years with responsibility for health and environment.
As the Premier she is mainly responsible for the whole government, and not a special area. She must keep the government together, and quotes the Swedish football coach Pia Sundhage;
“My job is to try to make others good. I will listen and coach, rather than forcefully instruct people. But I can certainly make myself heard too, I have a lively temper.”
One issue which has engaged the whole of Åland lately is the threatened closure of the island’s largest onshore employer – a factory making chips and frozen potato products. The factory was founded by Ålanders in 1969. It grew and did well and was bought in 2005 by the Norwegian Orkla group. Straight away there were prophecies of doom. Would the factory be closed and production moved to a place where there was no need for ferry transport? Did Orkla feel any social responsibility for Åland?
Things went very well under the Orkla leadership – until the beginning of this year. That is when news of merger talks emerged. More than one hundred jobs were under direct threat and another hundred indirectly; potato farmers and transport workers.
“200 jobs is a lot for Åland. This government has been working hard with this issue. We have been considering various competition measures which would make things easier not only for Orkla, but for other companies operating in Åland. Luckily others are getting involved too, like the municipality where the factory is based, and consumer organisations,” says Katrin Sjögren.
Everyone has been waiting for an outcome, and in the middle of May the happy news broke. The factory will remain in Åland and production will carry on as before. The Ålanders’ and government’s hard work to keep it there is believed to have contributed to Orkla’s decision.
Statistically Åland is doing well. Very well indeed. In April relative unemployment was 3.5 percent and the population is growing. Many who move to Åland find work in agriculture, a sector dominated by fruit and vegetable cultivation. Åland is not called Finland’s apple orchard for nothing.
“Yet one problem is that our labour market is so narrow. A few sectors dominate, especially the marine sector. Many shipping companies, both passenger, tanker and cargo transport, have their headquarters in Åland. Many Ålanders work in the marine sector, and it has created many new companies specialising in everything from offshore electrical systems, fire safety and IT systems. Many operate world wide.
“If the marine sector wobbles, all of Åland shakes. The narrow labour market also means many young people who go to Sweden and Finland to study never return because they can’t find their dream job in Åland. But at the autonomous administration we need special skills and can offer a number of jobs,” says Katrin Sjögren.
Thanks to its autonomous status, Åland can draft its own laws covering things like business. That, Sjögren says, is a great advantage.
“We can tailor the regulations to suit our needs to a large degree. Ålanders are also good entrepreneurs and good at multi-tasking. I understand that many might think it strange that 29,000 people rule themselves, making their own laws, but so far we have shown that we manage well. Sadly the average Nordic person knows little about Åland. Even many Finnish members of parliament lack knowledge about Åland’s special status,” she says.
Here is a short lecture on Åland’s status: In 1921 the newly founded League of Nations decided that Åland sold be an autonomous region of Finland with Swedish as the only language. Leading up to this, a popular movement in Åland had been fighting for the islands to be reunited with Sweden. Finland, which gained independence in 1917, did not want to let go of Åland, so the conflict was solved by the League of Nations. Since then the autonomy has developed, and today Åland can introduce their own legislation covering a range of areas. Customs, border control and the judiciary are areas controlled by the Finnish state.
Sjögren’s government has included a hot potato in its program – changing Åland’s municipal structure. The island probably holds the Nordic record when it comes to the number of municipalities – one city and 15 rural and coastal municipalities for 29,000 citizens! The city of Mariehamn is the largest with 11,500 people, the island municipality of Sottunga is the smallest with 100 people. A third of them are over 65.
“Many municipalities are not economically sustainable and many would benefit from working together across the borders,” says Sjögren.
But the issue is very sensitive, not least emotionally, and Åland’s other major political party, Åland Center, has forcefully opposed the joining of municipalities. It will be no easy task to force through a change, but the work has begun. In February next year a group will present a report with alternatives for a future structure. One alternative is said to be for Åland to become one single municipality.
Cuts are also needed across the board. The 20 million euro budget deficit is meant to be reduced to zero in the next three years. The health sector is one area which faces cuts.
Several major issues on the agenda depend on good relations to the parties in Finland. Among them is a review of the autonomy act and a change to the so-called settlement system or the amount of money which Åland gets back from the Finnish state to cover what the Ålanders pay in state taxes. The ongoing health sector reform in Finland must also be closely watched, because it will have consequences for collection of municipal taxes also in Åland.
Last but not least there is the wind power subsidy. It is windy in Åland and private investors were ready to launch a new major project with several wind turbines. But then the state changed its mind. From saying yes to a national subsidy, which had been met with much cheer in Åland, the answer was now suddenly no.
“That was really damaging to relations. But we must carry on and look to the future. High on the agenda are environmental measures and the Baltic Sea, says Katrin Sjögren.
Åland plays by its own special rules, and was allowed to keep these when Finland joined the EU. In order to own land in an unregulated area, for instance on a small island, you need to have what is called Right of Domicile in Åland – a kind of simplified citizenship which you can acquire if you have lived there for five years, is a Finnish citizen and can speak Swedish.
This has in turn led to quite a few constructions which has made it possible for people with no Right of Domicile to access attractive seaside plots.
“We have said that we want to explore whether you can modernise the right to buy land and clarify the regulations. But we don’t want to open up to complete free ownership, because that could lead to Åland turning into a summer camp for people with money,” Katrin Sjögren.
Katrin Sjögren used to work as an A&E nurse. That prepared her for a life in politics.
“You need to keep your head cold and your heart warm. And for your own sake you need to come to terms with the fact that politics has its ups and downs. I am in the top position right now, and try to do my best. If it’s not good enough it’s not good enough. Then someone else will come and take over,” she says.
What was you dream job as a child? I had two: priest and hairdresser.
Your favourite tool at work? The telephone.
Your hidden talent? I love to cook.
What are you reading? Everything. I really read a lot. Magazines, both news and periodicals. Reports, investigations and novels. Right now I’m reading ‘The Underground Girls of Kabul’ by Jenny Nordgren.