The Faroe Islands: They Say You Want a Constitution?

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Grass-roofed houses in the Faroe Islands (Photo by Pixabay)

Over the past year, the questions of sovereignty and secessionism have occupied much of European politics, ranging from the political deadlock over the status of Catalonia within Spain to the ongoing ‘Brexit’ talks between Great Britain and the European Union. However, another North Atlantic sovereignty question has quietly but steadily been gaining momentum in the in the form of an upcoming referendum in the Faroe Islands (Føroyar), a vote which might pave the way for greater autonomy from Denmark and may also have an impact on another part of the Danish Kingdom, namely Greenland.

The Faroes, with a population of just under 50,000, (its capital, Tórshavn, has a population of approximately 21,000), achieved ‘home rule’ from Copenhagen in 1948. This agreement allowed for many domestic issues such as taxation, agriculture, education, health and welfare to be overseen by a local government, with other areas including currency, defence and foreign policy remaining under Danish jurisdiction. However, a referendum scheduled to take place in April may decide whether the Faroes should adapt its own constitution, a move which may mark the first step towards even greater autonomy and perhaps even independence from Denmark, especially if a vote on separation takes place shortly thereafter.

In September 1946, the Faroe Islands held a referendum on outright independence from the Danish Kingdom, with a paper-thin majority (50.7%) voting in the affirmative. However, the Danish government swiftly nullified the vote on the grounds that the results did not represent the majority of eligible Faroese voters at the time. (Another part of the Danish realm, Iceland, was a Danish colony since the 14th century, then was in ‘personal union’ with Denmark after 1918, and then broke away completely in 1944, becoming an independent republic).

The issue of sovereignty nonetheless never full disappeared even after home rule was achieved, but attempts to put forward a distinct constitution suffered a series of setbacks until the middle of last year when a draft constitution was agreed to by the Faroese coalition government. One argument for this move was the fact that the Faroese economy, dominated by the fishing sector and also bolstered by tourism, has been growing steadily while the need for annual financial support from Copenhagen has dropped. There is also hope that, despite previous disappointing findings, the waters surrounding the Faroes might yield oil deposits. There remains the debate over whether the Faroes are too small in terms of population to be politically, and economically, autonomous.

The Faroe Islands government hopes to have the draft constitution put to a vote on 25 April this year, according to Prime Minister Aksel V. Johannesen. The draft constitution document itself [pdf, In Faroese] does not depart to any great degree from Danish law, but does potentially set the stage for future autonomy discussions and possibly even a future vote on separation. This could bolster support for separatism in Greenland, which has been experiencing its own debates on becoming an independent country in the wake of the economic possibilities appearing as a result of climate change, and might even have more far-reaching effects, including on separation discussions in the nearby Shetland Islands.

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(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

Even before the constitutional debate reached its current stage, the Faroes had sought to construct more autonomous foreign relations, especially after a Foreign Policy Act was concluded between Denmark and Faroe Islands in 2005, allowing the latter to strike agreements with foreign governments. The Faroes now have representative offices not only in Copenhagen but also Brussels, London, Moscow and Reykjavík, with other such bureaus elsewhere under discussion. The islands have fisheries and research agreements with the European Union, and in 2006 the Faroes produced a common market pact, known as the Hoyvík Agreement [pdf], which allows for free movement of goods and services between the two economies.

Despite not being north of the Arctic Circle, the Faroe Islands nonetheless consider themselves to be an Arctic actor, an important distinction as the far north opens up to greater shipping and other economic activities. The Faroes also lie on the western side of the emerging Northern Sea Route connecting Northeast Asia with Northern Europe, and may also benefit from potential new shipping via an emerging Central Arctic Route.

The Islands are represented in the Arctic Council, under the auspices of the Kingdom of Denmark along with Greenland and the Faroese government has expressed enthusiasm for developing its Arctic policies within the ‘West Nordic’ group which includes Greenland, Iceland and Norway. In 2013, the Faroese government published an independent Arctic policy paper [pdf] which outlined its interests in far northern economic development, including fishing and shipping, as well as research and environmental concerns. Tórshavn is also set to host its first breakout forum of the Arctic Circle conference in May of this year.

Details regarding the referendum, as well as whether a sovereignty vote would swiftly follow it, are still pending, but the Faroes’ constitutional debate may nonetheless be a sign that the political landscape of the Arctic and near-Arctic may be considerably altered, during the course of this year.