Never mind Brexit, the 50,000 people of the Faroe Islands could be headed towards Faroexit, with full independence from independence from ‘mother Denmark’. STAN ABBOTT reports
‘My mum voted Yes in 1946 and she’s 95 now,’ says Magni Arge. ‘She would love to see independence in her lifetime.’
Arge, of the left-leaning pro-independence Republican Party, is one of two Faroese MPs who sit in the Danish Parliament. We are chatting over coffee in a fashionable waterside coffee house in the capital, Tórshavn, about the process of writing a new constitution for this rugged, windswept group of 18 islands, mid-way between Shetland and Iceland.
With a coalition of largely pro-independence parties in power, the new constitution is intended to provide a legal foundation for possible eventual independence for the islands, which voted narrowly for self-rule in 1946. That was in a referendum, promised by Winston Churchill when the islands were returned to Denmark after the Second World War.
Back then, Denmark was caught off-guard by the result and chose to buy off the islanders by granting greater autonomy in a variety of areas, including aspects of foreign affairs.
So, when Denmark joined the EU with the UK in 1973, the Faroe Islands did not. (Greenland, Denmark’s other remnant of empire, did join, but in 1985 became the only country thus far to leave.)
Speaking later in the Rigsfællesskabet – State of the Realm – debate in the Danish parliament at the end of May, Arge said: ‘A union suggests equal partners – but that’s not the case here because this ‘union’ is a hierarchical one, with the Faroes and Greenland subordinate. But they are always trying to give the impression to the outside world that there is a kind of happy family with a harmonious structure.’
That harmony became discordant most spectacularly during the recent ‘mackerel war’ between the islands and the EU, which erupted when the pelagic fish shoals – herring and mackerel – shifted their customary feeding grounds into Faroese waters following changes in sea temperature. The dispute, which was eventually resolved in 2013, pitted the islands against Denmark and the EU, with Faroese fish exports banned by the latter. It led the Faroese to secure new markets in the USA, Nigeria and, taking advantage of the EU trade sanctions, Russia.
Arge and his colleagues see the mackerel war as the third great watershed moment in Faroese history, following the creation of the written Faroese language in 1884, and the ‘friendly occupation’ of the islands by the UK during the war.
That period saw no connection with Nazi-occupied Denmark for five years, during which time there was a healthy economy, monetary union with the UK and the creation of the Faroese flag, now celebrated annually on Flag Day. It also, he said, underscored the reality that the UK, not distant Denmark, was the ultimate military guarantor of the Faroe Islands.
‘After the war the sole purpose of the Danes was to take back the power that we had had for five years. The result of the referendum promised by Churchill when the islands were returned to Denmark was not respected.’
Separatists see Denmark’s reluctance to grant autonomy as geopolitical in nature: it is thanks to its Faroese and Greenland territories that Denmark enjoys a seat at the eight-nation Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum of Arctic states and peoples.
The constitutional process currently under way will not of itself lead to a Yes-No decision on autonomy, but the preamble to the document will spell out the right to self-determination and ensures, says Arge, ‘that we will have a constitution in place when we say goodbye’.
A decision on the constitution in the Løgting, or Faroese parliament, is expected later this year, with the final document put to the people six months later.
For the Republican Party, the issue is a simple one – the right to self-determination. Arge sees parallels with the Spanish state’s reaction to the Catalan independence vote and the EU position that it must stand by its member governments.
To appreciate the strength of feeling about independence demands an understanding of the Faroese psyche. In 16 years of regularly working in the islands I have come to appreciate distinct qualities borne out of eking a living on barren, volcanic rocks, whose soils are too thin to grow much other than potatoes, rhubarb, angelica (brought over by the Vikings) and red currants.
I have witnessed a quite extraordinary determination to always find Faroese solutions to Faroese problems, which often manifests itself as doggedly declining Danish advice. Witness to this are lengthy, self-financing sub-sea tunnels linking the major islands, new hospitals, university facilities and the state-owned airline, which worked with Airbus to enable satellite-aided landings at one of the most challenging airports in Europe.
In parallel with such developments, dependence on Danish state subsidy has declined, says Arge, to just 690 million kroner (£81 million), or 9% of GDP. It is now, he says, at a level at which its loss could be withstood in the event of independence.
Back in the early 2000s, a visitor to the islands would struggle to dine out on anything better than pizza, or to drink much besides weak beer. All that has been swept away by more liberal drinking laws, the arrival of a vibrant tourism industry and an energetic new, young society (high Faroese birth rates more than counter the effects of out-migration).
Traditional food, drink, dance and music are embraced, while islanders adopt what they like from the outside world in a distinctly Faroese way. Koks, a Michelin Star restaurant in an isolated valley, boasts a highly experimental menu, while dogged defence of the right to sustainably hunt pilot whales has been reinforced by ‘outside interference’, but that is another story.
The main opposition to independence, in a debate that does not divide on strictly left-right lines, comes from the socially conservative Union Party.
Its leader, Bárður á Steig Nielsen, argues that union with Denmark creates a strong realm with geopolitical clout – and, by extension via the EU, influence from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
The union, he says, brings the islands a good credit rating, while existing levels of autonomy already permit the freedom to diversify and make deals with other countries. He suggests the Danish subsidy is closer to 20% and argues that the outcome of the mackerel war illustrates just how strong and flexible the union is. The 1946 vote, he says, ‘is history now’.
Pro-independence Faroese are watching the stuttering UK Brexit process with interest, and the islands’ government hosted environment secretary Michael Gove last year. Fisheries minister George Eustice has also made an official visit, as well as hosting his Faroese counterpart in London.
Magni Arge says: ‘The UK will have an interest in extending its cooperation to the north, across the Atlantic and north towards the Arctic, which is exactly where we are.’
Alongside a post-Brexit free trade agreement, he’d like to see closer cooperation in fisheries, oil exploration and education, but adds: ‘I would never suggest that we should loosen our Nordic identity and replace it with a British one. It would be a relationship between neighbours that’s not hierarchical – and we could make our own arrangements without Denmark getting in the way.’
For the moment, however, there remains much to be discussed before either the UK’s future status or that of the Faroe Islands becomes clear.
Stan Abbott is a journalist fascinated by islands. He works frequently in tourism and aviation in the Faroe Islands