fredag 21 december 2007

Mid-ocean shopping mall

Giant ferries ply the Baltic between Sweden, Finland and Estonia. They are quite a comfortable way of travelling, and not too expensive. But why are they registered at Mariehamn. Where is Mariehamn? What is Mariehamn? And what are these floating shopping malls about?

Mariehamn, population 10,000, is the capital of Åland, the group of islands off the coast of Sweden, populated by Swedes, that actually belongs to Finland. And it has an odd history. As the Swedish empire was pushed back by Russia from the beginning of the eighteenth century, first Estonia and then Finland, in 1809, came under Russian control and with it the semi-independent of status of Grand Duchy. The Åland Islands were taken over by Russia at the same time.

In 1917, when Finland declared independence, there was a dispute between Finland and Sweden over ownership of Åland. To cut a long story short, the islanders wanted to be part of Sweden, Finland wanted to keep them and the Swedish government had little enthusiasm in getting involved in a conflict. The matter was eventually resolved by the League of Nations, which in 1921 decided it should be part of Finland, on the grounds that Åland is joined to Finland by a continuous archipelago.

Since then, commonsense has prevailed. The islands are semi-autonomous and in 1995 obtained special terms when Finland joined the EU. These include certain tax advantages which the ferry companies make the most of. Which is the reason for these floating shopping malls

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