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The Faroese's tense relationship to the EU
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The Faroese's tense relationship to the EU

| Text and photo: Rólant Waag Dam

50,000 people live in the Faroe Islands. There are 500 people in the EU. But do the Faroese want to be members in the big club and cooperate? The answer is a bit like the wind blowing across the stormy islands – it goes in all directions. Everyone wants closer cooperation, yet what that means depends on who you ask.

Compared to the other Nordic countries, there is little talk about the EU in Faroese public debate. The Faroese government does have an office on the fairly central address of Aarlenstraat 69-71 in Brussels, where you find The Mission of the Faroes to the European Union. One Head of Mission and one secretary works there. Apart from this, there is not one single Faroese politician, lobbyist or correspondent in Brussels. This is simply because the 18 little islands in the North Atlantic are not part of the European Union.

Three main agreements with the EU

The lack of full membership does not mean a total lack of cooperation, however. The first deal reached between the Faroese government and the EU was a 1980 fisheries agreement. Since then, this agreement has formed the basis for annual negotiations between the Faroes and the EU about the same fisheries rights. 

This was the first of what today is a total of three main agreements between the Faroe Islands and the EU. The next one was reached in 1997, a free trade agreement for industrial goods between the Faroes and the EU.

The third main agreement concerns cooperation on research, and was reached in 2010. Beyond these three main agreements, there are a number of smaller ones covering issues like copyrights. But the latest cooperation agreement with the EU is seven years old.

One party and one politician are pro EU

So where are the Faroe Islands in relation to the EU today? Outside, is the short and correct answer. Do they want to come into the European fold? Not as such.

Yet there is one Faroese politician for whom the EU has been close to his heart: Sjúrður Skaale, member of parliament for Javnaðarflokkurin, the Social Democratic Party.

“I think the EU is fantastic,” he told the Faroese national public broadcasting company Kringvarp Føroya on 18 March 2013. That was the day he published a 96 pages long report called ‘Yes to Europe’. Skaale was in no doubt. EU membership would be the best solution for the Faroe Islands, if some special conditions could be negotiated, he said.

Two years later the wind had changed direction. Before parliamentary elections in 2015, Skaale did no longer want to go for EU membership. He would rather discuss other opportunities, for instance EFTA.

Sjúrður Skaale is one politician. There is also one political party which back in the 1990s decided to formulate an EU membership application. This was never sent, nor written, but the centre-right Sambandsflokkurin, the Union Party, is still the most EU friendly in the Faroe Islands.

18 months ago they suggested the Faroese government start negotiations with the EU to secure free access for Faroese fishery products.

“We have not tried this before. We also do not know what the EU would want in return,” said Bárður á Steig Nielsen, leader for the Union Party, at a press conference in Thorshavn on 7 March 2016. The proposal was enacted by the Faroese parliament, but nothing more has happened since.

EU boycotts Faroe Islands

Two years earlier quite a lot happened, though. In 2013 the EU introduced sanctions against the Faroe Islands due to a dispute over the sustainability of Faroese herring fisheries. The then Faroese Prime Minister, Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen from the Union Party, explained the dispute to the Nordic Labour Journal in December 2013:

“The fisheries conflict with the EU and Norway is not about herring and mackerel, it’s about which principles should cover the North Atlantic.”

As a result of the conflict, the EU refused Faroese fishermen to export their fish to EU countries and banned them from docking in EU ports – including in Denmark.

The dispute lasted for about a year before the parties came to a political agreement on how to regulate the herring fisheries. One result of the dispute, however, is that even the most EU-friendly among the Faroese got slightly colder feet about the EU.

Closer cooperation

Membership or no membership. All Faroese politician want closer cooperation with the EU. What exactly that entails varies depending on who you ask. But they want closer cooperation because the Faroe Islands can benefit from it. So what can the Faroes offer in return? Nobody seems to have an answer to that question, since the Faroe Islands have not been sat at the negotiating table for the past seven years.

There is, however, one clear answer to why there is greater agreement on “closer cooperation” with the EU than there is on membership. EU membership can only happen via Denmark, or as an independent nation. So the Faroese have to decide what it is they want: Independence or connectedness.

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