The Faroes and the issue of independence 

The Faroe Islands (or more simply, the Faroes) are an island group in the North Atlantic roughly 230 miles Northwest of Shetland.  Settled in the Viking age, they came under Norwegian control in the 11th century and passed into Danish hands when the union of Denmark and Norway broke up in 1814.  Although a post-World War Two referendum produced a narrow popular majority for independence from Copenhagen, neither the Faroese political parties nor the Danes were prepared for this at the time.  Instead, they began a process of what we would call devolution and they call self-rule or home rule, gradually building up both the formal powers and the economic self-sufficiency of the island authorities.

Today, the Faroes are officially defined as a separate country or nation within the Kingdom of Denmark – a status shared by Greenland.  The Faroese administration in the capital town, Tórshavn, is self-governing in fields such as fisheries, trade, environment, health and education, has full control of its own taxation system and relies on Danish subsidies for less than 10% of its public expenditure.  It has considerable powers in internal or ‘civil’ security, such as control of the coastguard, transport safety and emergency response, though the police still answer to Copenhagen.[1]  External defence is clearly in Danish hands – and the islands are covered by NATO – but the situation on foreign affairs is more nuanced.  The Faroes were allowed to opt out from Denmark’s membership of the European Union in 1972, and they can negotiate directly with Brussels on issues within their competence – notably fisheries, on which they were embroiled in two separate disputes during 2013.  The islands have separate seats in the Nordic Council and Nordic Council of Ministers (long-standing institutions that deal with cooperation among Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden); are associate members of some international bodies such as the International Maritime Organization;[2] and maintain four independent diplomatic missions abroad.[3]

In the independence stakes generally, comparing the Faroes with Scotland is no simple matter.  Obvious differences between the two concern geographical placing – the Faroes have no common border with mainland Denmark even at sea – and size, where the Faroese population of 49,000-plus is closer to that of Orkney and Shetland put together (44,516 in 2011) than to Scotland’s 5 million.  As was just mentioned, the Faroes have a more distinct position and role in foreign affairs.  The native language, Faroese, is spoken throughout the islands and is not immediately intelligible for the Danes or other Nordic speakers, though having much in common with West Norwegian and Icelandic.  Further, under the present constitutional situation the Faroes have the right to initiate proceedings for full independence at any time they wish, with a presumption of Danish cooperation – though not necessarily rubber-stamping.

On the other hand, Faroese governance has features that have so far restrained any hasty ‘dash for freedom’.  Two different political parties have independence as their main agenda but the others are organized more on Left-Right lines, and local politics are also important.  The opinion polls’ finding of around 50% grass-roots support for independence amongst Faroese thus does not read through directly into high politics.  Most recent government coalitions have contained a majority of politicians wary of independence, and the latest government elected in 2011 actually started with a platform of pulling back in some areas of self-rule.  (For instance it abolished the separate ‘foreign ministry’ and re-located the foreign affairs staff within the Prime Minister’s office).

Furthermore, the Faroes went through an economic crisis in the early 1990s that has left people well aware of the practical implications and risks of standing alone.  Since the turn of the century there has been interest in oil and gas finds off the islands that might possibly fill the gap currently occupied by Danish monies in the state budget; however, development on this issue has gone slowly and the importance of this factor remains speculative.  This makes a clear contrast with Greenland, which is eyeing the prospect of major new incomes from on-land minerals development as well as sea-bed hydrocarbons, and where the latest government (elected Spring 2013) takes a clear and sometime combative pro-independence stand.

The Arctic connection

The point of the present commentary is to draw attention to what the Faroes are doing to respond to the prospective opening-up of the Arctic (or ‘High North’) region for economic activity and tourism, in the wake of ice melting at sea and on land.  Although probably over-hyped and certainly not yet well understood, this development has seized the attention of all of the world’s Northernmost countries and most of its great powers.[4]  All eight of the nation-states taking part in the region’s local cooperation framework – the Arctic Council – have published their own ‘Arctic strategies’ since 2008, explaining how they view the various consequences (both hopeful and threatening) of the Arctic melt, and outlining their special national interests, aims, and principles for Arctic governance.[5]  The UK, coming relatively late to the game, published its own Arctic strategy paper in October 2013 but did so without referring to any special or separate interests of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.[6]  The question of whether Scotland could or should have an Arctic strategy of its own, even within the present devolved situation, has yet to enter mainstream politics but was expertly analysed in a thesis and subsequent article by Rachael Lorna Johnstone, a law lecturer currently based on Iceland.[7]

Against this background, what the Faroes have done becomes interesting at three levels.  First they have decided to develop their own Arctic strategy while still remaining a non-sovereign nation, and despite having previously signed up to a common strategy with Copenhagen.  Secondly, the sectors treated as central to the Arctic debate in the Faroese study are very close to those most likely to arise in any equivalent Scottish discussion, as indicated also in Rachael Johnstone’s work.  And thirdly – as we shall see – the proposals in the Faroese report, despite being drafted under an anti-independence government, would create significant new areas of independent competence, action and capacity if implemented.  This raises the question whether there is something in the nature of the Arctic changes that is pushing forward the issue of independence, or at least a ‘devo-max’ equivalent, for the smallest entities involved.

The Faroese report: why and what

While Faroese experts have been reviewing Arctic developments at least since 2008, in 2011 their government – together with the authorities in Greenland – signed up to a single Arctic ‘strategy’ for the Kingdom of Denmark.[8]  However, this document represented very much a Copenhagen’s-eye view of things – stressing for instance Denmark’s will to signal and defend its sovereignty over all the territories involved – and the consultation process left much to be desired.  Soon after in 2012, therefore, the Faroese authorities set up a working party staffed largely by industrial and sectoral experts to produce their own assessment of Arctic prospects, specific Faroese interests, and the means of pursuing them.  The resulting report of around 40 pages came out in April 2013 and its English version, ‘The Faroe Islands – a Nation in the Arctic’, was released in August the same year.[9]  It was forwarded by the Prime Minister’s office to the Faroese Parliament (Løgting) for debate, with the request that the Lögting should try to agree on the recommendations and principles on which a full official ‘strategy’ could then be built. A first session on the topic was scheduled for late November 2013.

The aspects of the Arctic agenda where the report identifies special concerns and opportunities for the Faroes are fivefold: economic development, with the focus on shipping; fisheries; education and research; the environment, with the focus on pollution risks notably from accidents at sea; and emergency response in general.  All of these are also mentioned in Johnstone’s work as being relevant to Scotland, the main difference being that she also discusses issues that Edinburgh would need to address in the field of legal claims, institutional participation and governance generally.

The authors of the Faroese report are able to deal with the corresponding topics more briefly in an introductory section, given that the islands already have a certain history and presence in the Arctic Council and (as already mentioned) within the Nordic Cooperation framework.  Specifically, Faroese experts were present from the outset in the working groups developing an Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which became the precursor to the inter-governmental Arctic Council (AC) founded in 1996.  Since then, Faroese representatives have attended AC meetings within the Danish delegation, usually under their own separate flag.  The only new recommendation the report makes in this field is that Løgting representatives should also attend the Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region.  Furthermore, the Faroes do not face any practical issues over the recognition of their territorial waters – where they have for some time had a fisheries zone out to 200 nautical miles – or other contentious legal claims.[10]  It is Denmark, on behalf of Greenland, that is weighing up whether to make a claim to further maritime zones in the waters surrounding the North Pole.

As to the substance, the Faroese report contains an impressive amount of factual background and careful analysis, leading to pragmatic and balanced conclusions.  It does see some scope for the islands to profit from an expected increase in the flow of shipping through North Atlantic lanes, assuming it can draw traffic towards its own facilities and services – and many others are already competing in that game!  It insists that Faroese fishing companies, already active far up into Arctic waters, should get their fair share under any multilateral regime agreed for managing new fishery areas further North.  The remaining sections of the report, however, have a more precautionary tone, expressing especial concern about marine pollution from accidents (or other by-products of climate change) that could affect the actual and perceived quality of fish.  The authors use tough language in exposing the Faroes’ very limited capacities, so far, for carrying out the maritime safety, monitoring, and accident response responsibilities they have gained under home rule.  The recommendations for improvement in this context involve not only gaining new research and monitoring capacities, new human expertise, and practical assets, but also declaring the 200-nm zone as an Exclusive Economic Zone, and using the powers that would bring (under the UN Law of the Sea Convention) to establish special protected sea areas denied to shipping.  Such actions by a non-sovereign entity would have evident political-constitutional overtones.  More indirectly, so might the report’s proposal that the islands’ relatively new Contingency Planning Council should be charged with reviewing Arctic-related risks (so that the islands would not be relying solely upon a Danish assessment) and be reinforced with more specialized representatives for that purpose.

Back to the Scottish comparison

Even granted all the differences between the Faroes’ and Scotland’s situation, it is tempting to see parallels not only in the strength and specificity of each nation’s Arctic interests, but in the factors potentially pushing towards a more independent statement of those interests.  In the Faroese case, three explanations can tentatively be distinguished for the impetus behind the current drive for an Arctic strategy: objective differences between the Faroese and Danish situations; the fact that competences in the relevant sectors are already largely devolved to the Faroese authorities (at least in principle, or for internal purposes); and a sense that the formal sovereign is not ready or perhaps able to meet all the territory’s particular needs.  More politically, one might note that serious forces must be at work for such a report to emerge under a government initially hoping to roll back home rule.

If wishing to extend this analysis to Scotland, one would need to ask:

·  Is Scotland more ‘Arctic’ than the rest of the UK, and does it have stronger, or more specific, interests in the opportunities and risks of Arctic development than those normally identified from London?

·  Does Scotland have devolved competences in the relevant fields that it could be wielding more actively in respect to the Arctic-related challenges arising in its external environment?

·  Are there grounds for claiming that UK policy – including for instance institutional participation and the disposition of relevant military and civil assets –  does not (so far) adequately focus on and provide for the Scottish interests at stake?  How would one assess the recently published UK ‘strategy’ in this context?

Clearly, the answers one gives to these questions are likely to be affected not only by a person’s degree of knowledge of and interest in the Arctic, but also by attitudes to Scotland’s constitutional future in general.  All that may be noted here is that if the Faroes’ example is thought to be relevant, options may exist for developing a separate Scottish Arctic assessment – leading to a distinct ‘strategy’ at least within the limits of Scottish competence – under any of three distinct scenarios which may prevail in the future; the present constitutional dispensation, full independence, and a further development in devolution following an overall ‘No’ vote in the 2014 referendum.

Whether steps should be taken down the Arctic road in any or all of these contingencies is still an option that needs weighing carefully, and Rachael Johnstone is right to point out that it would have political repercussions under any of the three future scenarios.  Choices would ultimately need to come back to the question of how important the Arctic is for Scotland, compared with other interests and other arenas for action.  The answers are not likely to be the same as for the Faroes, but watching how the latter continues to grapple with the subject may at least inspire some useful reflections.

Professor Alyson JK Bailes is currently Adjunct Professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik and a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges.  She is a Research Fellow at the Scottish Global Forum and she also sits on its Advisory Board.  


[1] 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;jsessionid=EA937C771A38052FB2931EF30CEAF463

[2] Details at

[3] At Brussels, London, Copenhagen and Reykjavik: see

[4] As a well-known example, the Asian powers China, Japan, India, Singapore and South Korea have all applied for observership at the Arctic Council and were admitted in May 2013.

[5] The countries are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation and the US. For a comparative study of their strategies, see Alyson JK Bailes and Lassi Heininen, ‘Strategy papers on the Arctic or High North: a comparative analysis’, Icelandic Institute of International Affairs 2012, available at

[6] ‘Adapting to Change: UK policy towards the Arctic’, available at

[7] Rachael Lorna Johnstone, ‘An Arctic Strategy for Scotland?’, Arctic Yearbook 2012, available at

[8] ‘Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011–2020’, available at

[9] Text available at

[10] While the international-legal problems surrounding Rocakll are not fully resolved, the UK has agreed a maritime boundary to the North of Rockall with Denmark representing the Faroes.