David Forniès: It’s been a long time since the Faroe Islands have been spotted on the map as one of the would-be independent states. Which are the plans and expectations of the Faroese pro-independence camp as regards self-determination for the future?
Hervør Pálsdóttir: I would like to answer that with a bit of history as well, because we have been a self-governing nation since the late 1940s. That was maybe the height of our independence movement after the Second World War, when we actually governed ourselves because Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. That changed everything politically for the Faroe Islands. So after that we had a referendum where the majority of the people voted for the Faroe Islands becoming an independent country. But the parliament was dissolved, and the referendum was cancelled. So we got this Home Rule Act that we are governed by today. That is the reason why my party [Tjóðveldi] was created: to work for the referendum result.
«As we are growing richer and richer as a country, we also see that the chance to become an independent country with the same welfare that we have today is possible»We have seen that, since the 40s, a lot of things have changed, and we have taken over more and more jurisdiction from Denmark so that we are almost completely self-governing in everything that has to do with the Faroe Islands domestically. But I think that politically among the Faroese people it’s about 50-50 if they want the Faroe Islands to become an independent country or rather remain in the Danish kingdom. But as we are growing richer and richer as a country, we also see that the chance to become an independent country with the same welfare that we have today is possible. You can say that our strategy is to —like we call it— “empty” the Home Rule Act. We take over all the jurisdictions that we can, step by step, and we are acting like we were an independent country when it comes to foreign policy, security policy... We are demanding that if somebody wants to talk to the Faroe Islands, they have to talk to us directly and not through Denmark. In that way, we take more and more responsibility for our own country. You could say that politically, that’s the strategy. Even though we don’t have a huge majority for independence right now among the people, the people also want us to govern ourselves and be an active country in the global world. So there are only a few steps left to take, but those are typically the heaviest.
D. F.: Which are those steps?
H. P.: If I have to boil it down, we are almost financially independent. We don’t get a lot of money from Denmark. It’s about 600 million Danish crowns [80 million euros], about 6% of our financial law, or about 2% of our GDP. 20 years ago, it was about 30% of the financial law.
Besides, we need to take over the police, the courts and the justice system. The Faroe Islands have jurisdiction over the executive and legislative branches, but we need the judiciary as well. That is a big step, we are working on it, and we hope that we will be able to do that in the near future. But it’s not on the table right now for the other parties, unfortunately. And then of course we can’t —on paper— have our own foreign and security policy because it’s in the Danish kingdom’s powers. But we’re taking a more active role politically in those areas. So even though we can’t legally have those areas before we are an independent country, that’s a huge step as well.
D. F.: The current government is trying to get further areas as per the coalition deal it reached after the 2022 election. Your party is a member of that government, but the Social Democrats, who are not a pro-independence party, are the senior members of the coalition. So you needed to strike a deal with them: which are the areas in which in this legislative term you are working to progress towards independence?
H. P.: The pro-independence parties, in the last couple of years, have not been that good at cooperating because we disagree on many other areas, for example on wealth distribution. So we have been in government with the Social Democrats and the Liberals —we are now, and we were also four years ago—, but this time we got an agreement with them to lower our block grant (the money that we get from Denmark). So we’re lowering that by 100 million crowns [13 million euros] over the next four years. That’s like the sixth part of the block grant today. And the block grant hasn’t been lowered in 20 years. We see that as a huge win for us as well. And then we are also taking over control over air traffic, which is a Danish power today. We see it as good for our country because we can also be more active in the Arctic area, security wise. And we’ll be at the table because we control our air traffic.
D. F.: Does this also mean taking over military air traffic?
H. P.: No, because that’s a Danish jurisdiction that we can’t take over. But as we will control air traffic, we will have to cooperate with Denmark on it. That also gives us more involvement so that we know what is going on in our area or territory. We haven’t known that for a long time.
D. F.: When are you expected to get such control?
H. P.: We are working on it; we have to pass a bill maybe within a year, and then the plan is to take it over in 2026. Some areas are a bit difficult to get to...
We have already passed some bills to take over smaller areas. We have had a Danish law on pandemic emergencies —we had the Danish one when the Coronavirus pandemic— and that meant we couldn’t introduce laws or legal changes we wanted to control the pandemic because it was a Danish law. So we have taken over that now, so that if another pandemic hits, we’re ready. And then we have taken over some smaller areas that will be taken over from 1 January next year, regarding some sea issues. The sea is important to us!
D. F.: I’m sure!
H. P.: We want to take over anything having to do with the sea!
D. F.: Of course. You said before that in your opinion —and of course if you look at election results— you could say that there is a 50-50 balance in support or rejection for independence among the Faroese. But do you think that the appetite for more self-government, even if not full independence, is general in the islands?
H. P.: Yes, I would say that the Faroese people want more self-government, but we have this disagreement about whether it should be independence or more self-government within the Danish kingdom. But I think that there is a majority for further self-government. We haven’t had a referendum on independence since the 1940s, so it would be possible that a new referendum would also spark a majority for independence if there was a campaign for it.
D. F.: Do you want to hold one?
H. P.: We want to, but there’s not a majority in parliament for that.
D. F.: In this case, would the Faroese parliament have the power to call it, or do you need the Danish parliament to allow it to happen?
«Freedom is something you have to take, not something that someone has to give you. But we also know that if we don’t have Denmark’s support for independence, we don’t want to end up in a situation like Catalonia did»H. P.: It was supposed to be a referendum 20 years ago, so the Faroese and Danish governments were figuring out how that would happen. Denmark wants the Danish government or the Danish parliament to vote on the results as well. Not the people, but just the parliament. We disagree in that because freedom is something you have to take, not something that someone has to give you. I think a disagreement between the Faroese and Danish governments could happen as well in the future. Hopefully not. But we also know that if we don’t have Denmark’s support for independence, we don’t want to end up in a situation like Catalonia did, where nobody else recognises your independence or the rights of the people. So it’s also important for stateless nations to have ties with both nations and sovereign states for their support when they take that decision, because if it’s not recognised, it doesn’t give you the political freedom you want. So hopefully we will have the support of Denmark when we make that decision.
D. F.: What if the Danish government would not support that way? Can you imagine that countries other than Denmark could support the Faroese decision to take independence? Do you think this is feasible? And if so, which ones?
H. P.: I don’t think I want to name countries [laughs]. I don’t know. I hope there will be some countries that will recognise us. But I also think that many countries —we saw that with Catalonia— are scared to recognise new states because they are afraid that some movements within their own country will happen. It’s really important that the Danish parliament supports our wishes if we decide to become independent. I believe we witnessed 20 years ago how they used scare tactics to drive Faroese parties and politicians away from the referendum, and they were successful. We didn’t have a referendum, so I think they might do that again. Hopefully not. But many things have happened in the last 20 years that make it easier for us to become independent now. So when we decide to have a referendum, I hope the process will be good.
D. F.: You claim that during the last two decades, some developments have taken place, making it more feasible for the Danish government to accept the decision of the Faroese people of independence. Why?
H. P.: I think that, in theory, it would be easier for them to accept it now. I don’t think that any prime minister or any government wants to be the one that makes their territory smaller, especially if we look at how the world is right now. But I think it will be easier for the Faroese people to believe that we can govern ourselves because we have become more independent within the last 20 years, both financially and legally. So I think the Faroese people would not be today as uncertain about things that they were unsure about 20 years ago.
D. F.: Do you think that the evolution of the Faroese issue is linked to what will happen, or what is happening, in Greenland? Is there any link, or are they different processes that don’t match?
H. I believe that the processes are different. I think that we can inspire each other and learn from each other. But Greenland’s history, being a colony of Denmark, is a lot different from the Faroese one. Denmark hasn’t treated the Faroe Islands like they have treated Greenland. You can’t compare our movements, but I think that we support each other, or at least the independence movements in the different countries support each other.
D. F.: You said before that the Faroese nation is now both financially and politically more independent than it used to be 20 years ago. However, the world has changed. Independence processes have been witnessed, or at least attempted, in Catalonia, Scotland, and Iraqi Kurdistan—each in distinct ways—, yet none of these endeavours have accomplished their goal. And on the other side, I would say that the world has more authoritarian leaderships or even mindsets now than maybe 20 years before. So even if it’s true that domestically it is easier, internationally maybe it is harder. What is your take on this?
H. P.: Might be harder, but I’m not sure. One of the strengths of the Faroe Islands —or is it maybe a weakness?— is our geostrategic position. So it’s also important for us to strengthen our relations with our allies in the Western world so that we are sure that we also have this support, and they know that we are part of the Western democracies.
«You have to fight for democracy with democracy, not putting aside minorities and smaller nations and their right to self-determination»I think that within the last 20 years, there has been a lot of focus on the global world and globalisation also on a political level. But we tend to forget about national democracies. And at least I feel that in the Faroe Islands, we have experienced a lot of times that our democracy has been put aside in the very name of democracy, like within security policy or foreign policy, to maintain a more democratic world. The Faroese people and their ability to make decisions within our country have been put aside for a larger cause. This is something that we have to learn from both stateless nations and sovereign states —that you have to fight for democracy with democracy, not putting aside minorities and smaller nations and their right to self-determination.
D. F.: I would also like to take the chance to ask you about the identity of the Faroe Islands, also because you are the great-great-granddaughter of Joánnes Patturson, who was a poet and Faroese nationalist, a crucial person in the making of the Faroese identity. Being a privileged witness within your singular family, how do you assess the building of the Faroese identity, taking into consideration that it is also a very small country?
H. P.: Well, the independence movement in the Faroe Islands started as a cultural movement, fighting for the right to speak our language and for our culture. It started with what we called the Christmas Meeting back in 1888, where many people met to agree on some points about how to fight for our language. So that was the start of our independence movement. And I come from a very political family that has been quite active too in fighting for our language. The Faroese identity has been kept alive through storytelling and our national chain dance, where we tell stories in Faroese, and also other languages. And that is how our language didn’t die. So it’s also important for us –at least for me— to hold on to those traditions that we have fought for. We weren’t allowed to speak Faroese in school, the church, or the parliament for many years.
D. F.: When was that?
«It’s really important, especially for small countries, to make a huge effort to keep their languages alive»H. P.: Somewhere in the first half of the 19th century. So it’s really important, especially for small countries, to make a huge effort to keep their languages alive. There are a lot of languages that aren’t there any more. So that’s an important issue within the Faroese independence movement to strengthen the systems we have to keep our language alive and our culture too. It’s not only within the independence movement, it’s a broad movement in the Faroe Islands to keep our culture, to strengthen our culture. Being such a small country, we have a culture and an art scene that is quite big. It is something about our core identity, with storytelling through music or books or theatre or whatever it is. I think that is something that we learn from a young age to manage.
D. F.: Even in football, you are bigger than it appears! I saw this Klaksvík team, which made it into the UEFA Conference League group stage. It has been a big surprise —at least for me!
H. P.: Yeah! [Laughs] We see now that some of our national teams are really good. For example, our men’s handball national team has qualified for the last round of the European Championship, to be held in Berlin in January. That’s also a huge thing for us. That also makes me believe that we can be an independent country!