Finland Unitary state

History and trends

Finland is a semi-presidential Republic. Its Constitution was adopted on 11th June 1999.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Finland and Russia sought to redefine their relationship. Finland set new economic priorities and forged ties with former Soviet republics. But it prioritised a closer relationship with Europe and, in March 1992, applied for membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). Its application was judged favourably.

In an October 1994 referendum, 57% of the Finnish electorate voted in favour of European Union (EU) membership. Finland joined the EU on 1st January 1995. Finland is seen as the most “pro-European” country in Northern Europe. Finland has participated in NATO’s Partnership for Peace cooperation since 1994.

Local level :

Under the constitution, which entered into force on 1st March 2000, only municipalities are recognised as official local government units. The country’s 313 municipalities (416 prior to 2010) are founded and operate according to the constitutionally guaranteed principal of self-government, as reaffirmed in the Local Government Act of 1995.

Finland’s municipalities enjoy general jurisdiction. They deliver basic public services, primarily in education, social services, health and infrastructure maintenance. They also deliver other services in conjunction with other municipalities. For example, hospitals are managed by inter-municipal consortia. In 2000, 80% of municipal employees worked in health, social services and education.

There has been a steep rise in inter-municipal cooperation over the past decade, especially on public service delivery. In 2002, there were around 270 different cooperation entities, structured in various different ways as provided for by the Local Government Act.

It is important to note that Finland’s 18 regions are also forms of inter-municipal cooperation. Regions are able to cooperate with one another, typically by creating jointly owned private companies.

A wave of municipal mergers took place in Finland between 2005 and 2010.[1]

Despite cutting the number of municipalities from 416 in 2005 to 313 in 2016, Finland (population: 5.4 million) is still the subject of strong criticism from the OECD for its inefficient local government system, where the average municipality has a population of just 6,000 people.

Finland embarked on fresh wave of municipal mergers in 2015 and, at the same time, abolished inter-municipalities, which were highly controversial because their leaders were not directly elected – a situation that was “democratically problematic”. In 2013, the government announced sweeping reforms of the local government system across the country, as it sought to restructure municipalities and services to achieve “municipalities in sound financial health, stimulating improvements in administrative structures, and productivity and efficiency gains”.

Regional level :

The regional concept gained significant traction in the final decade of the 20th century.

The first regions were created in the mid-1990s, primarily as a conduit for applications for European Structural Funds following Finland’s accession to EU membership in 1995.

Finland is currently divided into 18 regions. The constitution makes no explicit mention of regions, but simply states that “provisions on self-government in administrative areas larger than a municipality are laid down by an Act”. As such, the regions may be considered local governements. The Division into Regions Act, passed on 11th December 1997, entered into force on 1st March 1998.

What makes Finland’s regions unusual is that they are an extension of the municipalities. All regional council members are municipal councillors, and all municipalities are represented. As such, Finnish regions are akin to a superior form of inter-municipality. That said, the regions have no authority over the municipalities.

Although Finland has no specific law governing the organisation of regions and their constituent bodies, each regional council, which meets between two and four times a year, is typically chaired by a senior government civil servant. Despite this, the regions are not devolved levels of central government.

Powers are transferred to the regions either by central government or by the municipalities. They play an important role in planning, regional development, and representing the municipalities to parliament and central government. They manage affairs that concern all municipalities, such as regional land-use planning.

As well as merging municipalities, there are plans to give the regions more extensive powers, particularly across social services and health, research and development, environmental policy, and transport and communications infrastructure.

Finland formerly had six provinces. These were abolished under the local government reforms that came into force on 1st January 2010.

[1] Article by Manon Meistermann, iFRAP Foundation, 2013