Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands (Føroyar) consist of 18 main islands situated halfway between Scotland and Iceland in the North Atlantic. Their combined landmass of 1399 square kilometres is as of 2018 populated by approximately 50,000 inhabitants, of whom more than one-third live in the capital of Tórshavn. While part of the realm of Denmark, the Faroe Islands enjoy extensive self-rule and the symbols of nationhood such as their own flag and anthem. The Faroese language now dominates the public as well as the private domain, although Danish still plays an important role. Whether the future will bring full independence for the Faroe Islands will depend on the will of its citizens and on economic conditions.

2019.02.25 | Peter Thaler

Historic government district of Tinganes in Tórshavn.

From Viking settlement to Danish county

Although there are traces of earlier Celtic populations on the islands, Faroese society has its roots in the Norse settlement that was established in the early 800s. After a period of self-government, the islands were incorporated into the kingdom of Norway in the eleventh century and followed that country into its union with Denmark in 1380. Within this political structure, the administration of the Faroes gradually shifted from Norway to Denmark. When the union was dissolved in the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, Denmark retained sovereignty over the Faroe Islands as well as other former Norwegian dominions in the North Atlantic.

Between 1816 and 1948, the islands were officially administered as a Danish county. At the same time, its inhabitants began to accentuate their distinctiveness. In the mid-1800s, V. U. Hammershaimb created a written standard for the Faroese language, which for centuries had been a purely oral vernacular. The drive for greater cultural and political self-reliance won increasing support, first among students in Copenhagen and subsequently in broader segments of the population. Concerns about the cultural and especially economic implications of self-government triggered a countermovement, however, and the Faroese political scene gradually became divided between autonomists and unionists.

Self-governing community within the Danish realm: Home Rule

When German troops occupied Denmark during the Second World War, the British took control of the Faroes. The separation from Denmark intensified calls for greater self-determination and resulted in negotiations about the status of the islands in 1945. In a 1946 referendum, 48.7% of the voters supported secession, whereas 47.2% preferred the limited autonomy offered by Denmark and 4.1% cast invalid ballots. For a brief moment, Faroese independence seemed imminent, but the Danish king dissolved the Faroese parliament and scheduled new elections. The victorious unionist parties signed a home rule agreement with Denmark in 1948.

Since 1948, the Faroe Islands have been a 'self-governing community within the Danish realm', as stated in the Home Rule Act. Legislative matters were divided into several categories. Foreign and defence policy were excluded from self-rule, and the monetary and judicial systems remained under direct Danish control. The remainder included matters that could devolve to the Faeroese by unilateral decision and matters that could only be transferred by joint agreement of the Danish and Faroese governments.

Since the introduction of home rule, many legislative matters have been taken over by the Faroese parliament. However, the process has progressed slowly as the transfer of authority included the transfer of financial responsibility; since the Faroese budget has always been dependent on substantial Danish subsidies, unionist parties have frequently found electoral support for their opposition to accelerated devolution.

Post-war politics

Throughout the post-war era, the Faroese political system has been divided along two axes. A traditional left-right axis along cultural and especially economic lines is crisscrossed by a national axis, categorising parties according to their support for Faroese political independence.

  • The conservative Unionist Party (Sambandsflokkurin) has consistently been the strongest guardian of ties with Denmark.
  • The Social Democratic Party (Javnaðarflokkurin) on the left has traditionally supported the unionist line because it regards Danish financial support as essential for the preservation of welfare benefits.
  • The People's Party (Fólkaflokkurin) represents the conservative autonomists. Originally the foremost proponent of increased self-government, the party has been overtaken in this role by the Republican Party.
  • The Republican Party (Tjóðveldi) grew out of the cross-party movement supporting independence in the 1946 plebiscite. The Republicans are considered leftist on economic and social issues, although their character as the most unequivocal independence party appeals to a broad range of supporters.

Each of these four main parties historically attracted around a fifth of the vote, far outdistancing the remaining smaller factions. The individual parties have cooperated in shifting coalitions.

Home rule is administered by the Faroese government, the landsstýri, in collaboration with the democratically elected parliament, the løgting. The Faroese send two deputies to the Danish parliament, and Denmark is represented on the islands by a high commissioner. Although foreign policy is not covered by the home rule agreement, the Faroe Islands negotiate their own international fishery agreements and did not follow Denmark into the EEC in 1973.

Still entwined with the Scandinavian mainland: economy and culture

Faroese history and politics have been strongly influenced by its economic development. The transformation from agricultural to fishing society has sustained a population growth from 5000 inhabitants in around 1800 to almost 50,000 in the late 1980s. During the economic crisis of the early 1990s, however, 10% of the population left the country, primarily for Denmark. Both economy and population have rebounded, but the cycles of the fishing economy have become shorter and more volatile. Although the majority of the population is no longer employed in fishing, the industry still dominates Faroese exports.

In spite of increasing self-assertion, Faroese society has remained deeply intertwined with other Nordic countries, especially Denmark. Many Faroese pursue their post-secondary education in Denmark; extensive stays in Denmark are a common Faroese experience. In 2018, approximately 11,000 residents of Denmark listed a Faroese place of birth, and this number does not include children born there of Faroese parents. Due to their thorough training in Danish as a foreign language, the Faroese are very adept at communicating with Norwegians and Swedes as well.

For the time being, the Faroe Islands, together with Greenland, remain a part of the Danish realm. They enjoy extensive self-rule, including the symbols of nationhood such as their own flag and anthem. The Faroese language now dominates the public as well as the private domain, although Danish still plays an important role in education and cross-border communication. Whether the future will bring full independence for the Faroe Islands will depend on the will of its citizens and on economic conditions.

Further reading:

  • Hans Jacob Debes, Færingernes land (Copenhagen: Multivers, 2002).
  • Jonathan Wylie, The Faroe Islands: Interpretations of History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987)
  • Tom Nauerby, No Nation is an Island: Language, Culture, and National Identity in the Faroe Islands (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1996).