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15th Feb 2019

Focus

Faroes look at self-determination and closer EU relations

  • Torshavn, the capital of Faroe Islands. Fishing and aquaculture accounts for around 95 percent of the archipelago's exports. (Photo: Arne List)

The Faroe Islands will vote on a new constitution next year that could overhaul its 70-year old status as an autonomous part of Denmark.

Faroese prime minister Aksel Johannesen announced on 12 February that the constitutional proposal will be submitted to the local parliament next summer and put to referendum on 25 April 2018.

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The Faroe Islands - an archipelago of 50,000 people in the north Atlantic, situated between Iceland, Norway and Scotland - have been an autonomous nation within the Kingdom of Denmark since 1948.

They have their own parliament and government, but decisions on defence, police, justice, currency and foreign affairs are still made in Copenhagen.

They are not part of the same customs area as Denmark, which allows them to have their own trade policy and possibility to establish trade agreements with other countries.

The new constitution "will define our identity as a nation and our fundamental rights and duties as a people, including our right to self-determination", prime minister Johannesen said in a statement when announcing the referendum.

He added that the new constitution would include a clear statement saying that “the Faroese people must be consulted by referendum on questions related to further independence from, or further integration with, Denmark” as well as “in relation to membership in supranational organisations, such as the EU.”

Divergent views

Johannesen, a unionist Social-Democrat, leads a coalition government made up of both unionist and separatist parties from left and right.

He admitted that parties "have divergent views on certain aspects of the proposed constitution", which has been under discussion for several years.

Under independentist pressure, finalising the text was included in the government’s coalition agreement in 2015.

But unionist parties believe that the Faroe Islands can have a constitution without it being a preamble for independence from Denmark.

“We do believe in our current constitution - the constitution of the Danish Realm – and if people want a new ‘steering ship’ that is okay, but we do not find it necessary,” Bardur a Steig Nielsen, the leader of the opposition conservative Union party, told EUobserver.

He said his party "cannot accept the wording of the draft constitution as it is at the moment,” but that it was part of the negotiations because they "would rather be in than out".

'Not entirely happy'

The islands held an independence referendum in 1946 where a narrow majority of yes to secession won. But a split from Denmark was never carried out and the vote led to the current home government arrangement that entered into force in 1948.

Like Greenland, another Danish autonomous territory, the Faroes are not in the EU. But they have three separate bilateral agreements with the 28-member bloc: a fisheries agreement; a trade agreement; and a cooperation and research agreement that allow them to be an associated country in the EU Horizon 2020 science programme.

In parallel to the constitutional overhaul, the Faroes have been trying to "modernise" their relationship with the European Union.

“We’re not entirely happy with the trade agreement because we feel it is asymmetrical," Kate Sanderson, the head of the Faroese mission to the EU, told EUobserver.

"The EU pretty much has full access to the Faroese market, but we don’t have full access for all our products to the EU. So we would like to see a modernisation of [the trade agreement] based on the kind of resource base we have."

The warm waters of the Gulf Stream have helped the Islands with its main industry, fishing and aquaculture, which accounts for around 95 percent of its exports. Around 50 percent of the country’s total export goes to the European Union.

The Faroes would like to process more of their fish products before selling them to the EU market as it would create jobs on the isolated Atlantic islands, Sanderson said.

Strategic outlook

"We’re a provider of raw products to the EU, which provides the EU with opportunities to add value to that produce and to create jobs. There are restrictions on how much processed fish products we can sell without duty to the EU market," she pointed out.

The diplomat added that she would like the EU to look at the Faroes in a more strategic way.

"Regardless of our status, whether we are autonomous or fully independent, we desire to modernise our relationship with the EU and to create a discussion with the EU that is broader and more strategic in terms of the developments in the north Atlantic and the Arctic," she said.

The Faroe Islands is also keeping a close eye on the Brexit negotiations. The UK is its closest neighbour and currently the biggest country in the EU market regarding Faroese exports, receiving 21 percent of all Faroe exports to the EU.

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