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Goodbye Denmark? Faroese weigh pulling free of Danish grip

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Goodbye Denmark? Faroese weigh pulling free of Danish grip
Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix
09:10 CEST+02:00
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.

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.

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."

READ ALSO: Greenland forgets to raise Danish flag on Constitution Day

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