The Faroe Islands, a community of just 49,000 people in the Atlantic 230 miles North of Shetland, will go to the polls in a general election no later than 29th October this year. Given the present government’s weakness, it may well happen sooner than this. Their case offers some strong parallels for Scotland and its ongoing independence debate. The Faroes belong to the Kingdom of Denmark but are recognized as a distinct nation, and have won large powers of self-government. The Faroese people have actually voted outright for independence once before, in 1946, but this it was too much for Copenhagen to swallow at the time.
Today, the Faroe Islands manage nearly all their own affairs in practice. They still receive a Danish subsidy for their public spending but it covers less than 10% of the annual budget. Denmark remains responsible for formal diplomacy and defence but it no longer maintains a military HQ on the islands. Other aspects of security like fishing protection, coastguard service, and handling accidents and emergencies are fully under Faroese control, aside from a quirky arrangement which means that the local police are formally subordinate to Copenhagen.
Externally, the Faroes have their own seat in the Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers, long-standing institutions that deal with cooperation among Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. They are associate members of some international bodies particularly vital for their economy, such as the International Maritime Organization and International Whaling Commission. They maintain four independent quasi-diplomatic missions abroad and are just opening another in Moscow. By contrast, Scotland has (thus far, at least) just two overseas offices.
How much autonomy?
The question of whether or not to take the step to full independence is a matter which divides opinion in the Faroes as much as it does in Scotland. Under the latest re-definition of home rule powers, Denmark has actually opened the possibility for the islands to ask for independence at a time of their choosing. But with an election looming there are Faroese parties running on a pro-union as well as a pro-independence ticket, and the divide on that issue partly cuts across the normal Right-to-Left political spectrum. In a parliament (Løgting) of just 33 members, coalitions of several small parties are the rule, sometimes with quite localized agendas. All of this makes it hard for any given government to claim a clear pro-independence mandate: the distinction has been rather between those who want to stretch the bounds of self-rule, and those who don’t.
The current Faroese government came into office as the latter kind. Led by Kaj Leo Johannesen of the Union Party, in coalition with the People’s and Centre Parties (another party dropped out in mid-term), it took power after an election in November 2011 that showed a clear swing to the Right. Its policy on ‘the constitutional question’ was not merely to stand still on independence, but to reverse some of the steps taken in recent years towards greater autonomy. Perhaps most symbolic of all, it abolished what had been called the ‘foreign ministry’ and put the relevant staffs under the Prime Minister’s office. It also asked Copenhagen for a 25% hike in the subsidy. This request was rebuffed: the level of subsidy has risen only from 612 to some 630 million Danish kroner, an increase which compensates for inflation.
Efforts to put the clock back in this way was difficult for many Faroese to stomach, proud as they were of having whittled down their dependence on Denmark, and of having built economic stability after a crisis in the early 1990’s. The People’s Party had to swallow the pill to stay in the coalition, but in doing so lost some discontented pro-independence voters. Since then, the Johannesen government has done little to court a wider popularity. Its taxation policy has been regressive, cutting payments for the rich to a flat rate of 40%, but increasing the tax burden on pensions in such a way that old-age provision may now prove inadequate for many elderly Faroese.
The government’s socially conservative programme has thus been energetically pursued, but – interestingly – its anti-independence philosophy less so. Whether it carries the name ‘foreign ministry’ or not, Faroese diplomats have continued to foster their country’s interests abroad. Faroese powers over fishing matters have been rather dramatically illustrated by two separate disputes with the EU (and thus, theoretically, with Denmark), of which one is now settled and the other put to arbitration. In 2013 the Prime Minister’s office published a separate Arctic strategy for the Faroes in which several proposals were made to take greater competences and stand up more firmly for specific Faroese interests, within the broader framework of Danish policy. It was an intriguing example of how ‘life itself’, and especially the growing political salience of the Arctic regions, might be pushing the smaller nations of the North into a more distinctive course.
Voter disillusionment: how will it register at the ballot box?
Opinion polls now suggest that all of the coalition parties are losing ground. Their disgruntled voters are moving towards the Social Democratic Party (if they are pro-union) and the centre-right Progress Party (if pro-independence). The two parties with independence as their main platform, ‘Republic’ and ‘Self-government’, hope the same trend will give them a claim to a place in the next coalition. If the government is led by the Social Democrats, an outright bid for independence will not represent practical politics and all partners are likely to see correcting the fiscal/economic/social course as the first priority. To get a broad enough base for needed reforms, notably in the fishing quotas system, it could be necessary to bring at least the main conservative (Union) party back into government. Putting the Faroes’ house in order in this way can, however, equally well be seen as the necessary foundation for full sovereignty in the longer term.
A more expansive approach to foreign affairs and security?
Moreover, and just as in Scotland, votes won by pro-independence parties could provide a mandate for a degree of experimentation in foreign affairs, even within a non-sovereign framework. The Faroes’ contacts with its many citizens living abroad (there are around 15,000 in Denmark alone) were recently strengthened by an enquiry into possible ways of countering a chronic brain drain and enticing experts home. One idea that arose in the process was to create a network of Honorary Consuls, an inexpensive measure that could lend itself to a higher Faroese profile abroad. The Republic Party are also keen to open a mission in Nuuk, Greenland, as part of the ongoing intensification of ‘West Nordic’ cooperation with that nation and Iceland.
Depending on how much scope the pro-independence elements in a new government would have, there are broader issues that could be explored concerning the range and nature of a Faroese foreign policy. At present, for instance, the Faroes Islands do not control their own air-space, which is a Danish prerogative and is administered with Iceland’s help. The issue about subordination of the police was noted above. Some thinkers would like the Faroes to go forward from their successful Arctic strategy document to prepare a broader, multi-dimensional security strategy for the nation, excluding only the ‘hard’ military aspects.
If the Faroese wind does turn out to be blowing away from Denmark, could it be part of a wider trend? Greenland, which also has a home-rule government, had to hold a snap election in November 2014 after Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond left office charged with improper use of public funds. She had represented the left-leaning Siumut Party, with a platform of seeking independence and promoting new economic development (under environmental controls) to pay for it. To the surprise of some, her party came out equal leaders in the election results and her colleague Kim Kielsen took over as Prime Minister. Albeit more prudently, he is expected to pursue a similar line.
* An early version of this article was published in The Herald in April 2015
<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:=”” “constantia”,serif;mso-fareast-font-family:”ms=”” mincho”;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” “times=”” roman”;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:en-us;=”” mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””> Beinta í Jákupsstovu and Regin Berg (2012). ‘The Faroes Islands’ Security Policy in a Process of Devolution’, Stjórnmál og Stjórnsýsla Vol. 8(2), pp. 413.30, available at http://skemman.is/item/view/1946/14872;jsessionid=EA937C771A38052FB2931EF30CEAF463
<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:=”” “constantia”,serif;mso-fareast-font-family:”ms=”” mincho”;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” “times=”” roman”;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:en-us;=”” mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””> Details at: http://www.mfa.fo/Default.aspx?ID=13248
<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:=”” “constantia”,serif;mso-fareast-font-family:”ms=”” mincho”;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” “times=”” roman”;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:en-us;=”” mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””> At Brussels, London, Copenhagen and Reykjavik: see http://www.mfa.fo/Default.aspx?ID=13346. <span “font-family:”constantia”,serif;mso-ansi-language:=”” is”=””>
<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:=”” “constantia”,serif;mso-fareast-font-family:”ms=”” mincho”;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” “times=”” roman”;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:en-us;=”” mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””> The new policy is to tax payments into pension funds at the time they are made, and at the full rate of 40%.
<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:=”” “constantia”,serif;mso-fareast-font-family:”ms=”” mincho”;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” “times=”” roman”;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:en-us;=”” mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””> ‘The Faroe Islands – a nation in the Arctic’, at http://www.government.fo/foreign-relations/the-faroe-islands-and-the-arctic/
<span “font-size:10.0pt;font-family:=”” “constantia”,serif;mso-fareast-font-family:”ms=”” mincho”;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” “times=”” roman”;mso-ansi-language:en-us;mso-fareast-language:en-us;=”” mso-bidi-language:ar-sa”=””> See Egill Þór Nielsen, ‘The West Nordic Council in the Global Arctic’, Centre for Arctic Policy Studies (Reykjavik) 2014, at http://ams.hi.is/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/the_west_nordic_council.pdf