Enough is enough: for the Faroese sailor Birgir Enni, having spent more than half a millennium under Danish rule means it’s about time for the North Atlantic autonomous archipelago to break away.
“We’ve been occupied by Denmark for 600 years! That is enough and we need to change that soon,” the white-haired captain tells AFP on his wooden sailing ship.
Located more than 1,100 kilometres (more than 680 miles) northwest of powerhouse Copenhagen, the Faroe Islands have since 1948 had their own white, blue and red flag with an offset cross, their own language originating from the Viking’s Old Norse and institutions and culture.
With its breathtakingly green and high mountains covered by fog and inhabited by more sheep than people, the island territory is weighing the idea of pushing its autonomy to full independence.
“We are not Danes, we will never be Danes, we can’t be Danes, we are Faroese and that’s it… we have to stand up for it and fight for it,” says Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Poul Michelsen, who’s also the leader of the separatist Progressive Party.
“We are becoming more independent everyday… because we’re taking more and more responsibility. The gap between Denmark and the Faroes comes quite naturally,” Michelsen tells AFP in his office in the Faroese capital, Torshavn.
No hard master
An unlikely alliance of the left, the right, separatists and unionists, the local government is now writing a constitution, which is aimed at capturing the Faroese identity and is seen by some as one of the final pieces of a puzzle leading to emancipation.
An April referendum on the constitution was postponed in order to reach the widest possible consensus on the text. As yet, no new date has been set.
After the planned transfer of migration affairs to the Faroese authorities, Copenhagen will only be in charge of Faroese defence and certain aspects of foreign, monetary and judicial policies.
“Denmark is not a hard master,” says Hanna Jensen, co-founder of the Progressive Party.
“(But) Denmark has its own motivations, its own needs and interests for its own place in the world… they are trying to also include our needs, our motivations and our wants, but they collide regularly,” she adds.
This conflict of interest was particularly notable during a mackerel and herring war with the EU — of which the Faroe Islands is not a member — in early 2010, when Denmark was forced to join a Brussels-imposed boycott against Faroese fish.
The issue touched a raw nerve in Faroese society, which is mainly reliant on fishing, and has not been forgotten to this day.
The islands’ economy is flourishing compared to Greenland, another Danish autonomous territory, thanks to fishing, agriculture and rising tourism, although oil exploration efforts have drawn a blank.
Unemployment is almost non-existent, gross domestic product per capita exceeds that of Denmark and the Faroese authorities feel so confident that they’ve asked Copenhagen to freeze their annual subsidies, meaning that their importance for the local economy is gradually shrinking over time.
A split population
The fight for their national identity began at the end of the 19th century, even though the islanders had to wait until 1937 to have their own language officially recognised.
When the Faroe Islands were invaded by the British army during World War II — while Denmark was under Nazi German rule — they got a taste for managing their own affairs in the absence of Danish involvement, triggering a desire for freedom.
A referendum led to a narrow victory for the separatists in 1946, but Copenhagen responded by dissolving the Faroese parliament, the Logting.
At the port of Torshavn, in narrow streets and houses covered in green grass roofs, opinions on independence are divided, reflecting a split also shown in the polls.
“I have no problem being in a union with Denmark,” says Ossur Hovland, a retired teacher.
“We are 50,000 people, it’s more convenient to be in a nation of five million people”.
But for Birgir Enni, the long-distance relationship is no longer working out.
“We are so far away from everything, we have a lot of everything, we don’t need anything from anybody.”
History of the Faroe Islands
The first known settlers in the Faroe Islands were Irish monks, who in the 6th century AD told of the “Islands of the Sheep and the Paradise of Birds”.
Viking age settlers establish their free state
The name Føroyar (Faroe Islands) is derived from old Norse and means Sheep Islands, a name given by the Viking age settlers arriving from Norway in the 9th century. The medieval culture and organisation of the Faroe Islands was clearly Norse in origin and form, and they established their Althing (parliament), later named Løgting, at Tinganes in Tórshavn. Tórshavn still is the capital city of modern days Faroe Islands, and it claims to hold the oldest parliament in the world.
Special status under foreign Monarchs
Viking age Norwegian kings long aspired to gain control over the Faroe Islands, but for many years the Faroese managed to fight them off. However, by the latter half of the 12th century the Faroe Islands eventually became firmly attached to the Kingdom of Norway.
The Faroe Islands joined Norway into the dual monarchy with Denmark in the late 14th century. When this union was succeeded by a Norwegian-Swedish union in 1814 the former Norwegian territory of the Faroe Islands remained under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark. Due to, among other factors, remoteness vis-à-vis both Norway and Denmark, the Faroes Islands always maintained a special jurisdiction along with their distinct language and culture, guarded by the ancient Løgting.
The royal trade monopoly long stood in the way of development. When it was abolished in 1856 an export oriented commercial fishing industry rapidly developed in the Faroe Islands kickstarting the development of a modern market economy and population growth.
The special constitutional status, combined with a growing export oriented economy and a cultural national awakening by the late 19th century, fuelled a Faroese nation-building process and the establishment of political autonomy. Since adopting the Home Rule agreement of 1948 the Faroe Islands has had extensive self-government.
A diversed economy and welfare state
Today fisheries and aquaculture are the basis for the production and export of high quality Faroese fish products, which constitute 95 per cent of the total income of exported goods. Diversification of the economy and the development of a welfare society has led to a variety of working opportunities in the modern Faroese society.
With economic wealth the Faroese have developed a welfare society much along the lines of the typical Scandinavian welfare state model, e.g. with free education and healthcare for all.
LOCATION AND SIZE
Situated in the heart of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic at 62°00’N, the Faroe Islands lie northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. The archipelago is composed of 18 islands covering 1399 km2 (545.3 sq.miles) and is 113 km (70 miles) long and 75 km (47 miles) wide, roughly in the shape of an arrowhead.
There are 1100 km (687 miles) of coastline and at no time is one more than 5 km (3 miles) away from the ocean. The highest mountain is 882 m (2883 ft) above sea level and the average height above sea level for the country is 300 m (982 ft).
The weather is maritime and quite changeable, from moments of brilliant sunshine to misty hill fog, to showers. The Gulf Stream encircling the islands tempers the climate. The harbours never freeze and the temperature in winter time is very moderate considering the high latitude. Snowfall occurs, but is shortlived. The average temperature ranges from 3,5°C in winter to 12°C in the summer. In sheltered areas, the temperature can be much higher, but the air is always fresh and clean no matter what the season.
The population is 48,308 (1st February 2014). Almost 20.000 people live in the metropolitan area which comprises Tórshavn, Kirkjubøur, Velbastaður, Nólsoy, Hestur, Koltur, Hoyvík, Argir, Kaldbak, Kaldbaksbotnur, Norðradalur, Syðradalur, Hvítanes, Sund, Kollafjørður, Signabøur and Oyrareingir, while about 4,600 people live in Klaksvík, the second largest town in the Faroe Islands.
FORM OF GOVERNMENT
Since 1948, the Faroe Islands have been a self governing region of the Kingdom of Denmark. It has its own parliament and its own flag. It is not, however, a member of the European Union and all trade is governed by special treaties.
Faroese is the national language and is rooted in Old Norse. Nordic languages are readily understood by most Faroese, and English is also widely spoken, especially among the younger people.
Religion plays an important part in Faroese culture and over 80% of the population belong to the established church, the EvangelicalLutheran. 10% of the population belong to the Christian Brethren (Plymouth Brethren).
The fishing industry is the most important source of income for the Faroes. Fish products account for over 97% of the export volume. Tourism is the second largest industry, followed by woollen and other manufactured products.
– afp / faroe islands