Kristina Háfoss: ‘The Catalan case is a question of human and democratic rights’

Interview with Member of the Faroe Islands Parliament, former Minister of Finance (2015-2019), economist and lawyer

Martí Estruch Axmacher
05.01.2020 - 10:42
Actualització: 05.01.2020 - 11:42

– A look at your Twitter timeline clearly shows that you care about Catalonia. Is there a specific reason for it?
– Yes. I believe in the nations right to self-determination. I also believe that this is the best tool for us humans to ensure peace, stability and prosperity. We should ask ourselves, what is the alternative? Why should nations not be allowed to decide their own future in a peaceful and democratic way? When I studied law, around the millennium, I specialized in the right to self-determination, and when I finished my studies abroad, I went home again to the Faroe Islands, and went into politics to work towards full independence for our nation. Many nations around the world experience unfairness when it comes to lack of possibities to exercise their self-determination. But to have a nation, in Europe, in 2019, that wants the right to decide their own future, through self-determination, and this right is denied? That is, to me, unacceptable.

– In Spain, some people are even sent to jail for it…
– Regardless of whether you are pro-independence or not, and even regardless of whether you are pro-referendum or not, no one should be put in prison for a democratic referendum, arranging events, allowing a debate in the parliament, and exercising the right to self-determination. The Catalan crisis is a political crisis that needs political solutions and prison is for sure not the solution, as it only makes the crisis bigger. I can add that in October 2018 we arranged a conference on self-determination in the Faroe Islands. Representative from the Scottich National Party (SNP) explained the UK and Scotland case. Representative for the pro-independence parties in New Caledonia explained the France and New Caledonia case. Representative for our political party, Tjóðveldi, explained the Denmark and Faroe Islands case. And Carles Puigdemont explained the Spain and Catalonia case. Four different cases, showing how different the right to self-determination is used – or not used – today. I have been following the situation in Scotland closely for many years. I have also followed the situation in Catalonia for many years, but since the conference in the Faroe Islands in 2018, I have been following the situation in Catalonia much more closely. I believe that the European nations without a sovereign state have a lot to gain from cooperation and supporting each other. Even though we are different, we have so much in common.

– This kind of commitment is quite rare among European politicians. In a globalized world, the Catalan case is still considered an internal affair.
– The silence among european politicians regarding Catalonia is alarming. The EU is a club of sovereign states who protect – and also threat – each other. Therefore there are few european ministers that dare to say anything in public regarding Catalonia. But some have broken the silence. For example the foreign minister and the president of the parliament in Iceland, also the first minister in Scotland, and the presidents of the parliaments in Westminster and the Faroe Islands. Many MP’s in the nordic countries and European parliament are also trying to push for a solution to the Catalan crisis, and hope for real dialogue between the government of Spain and Catalonia. The situation in Catalonia is of course not an internal affair. The Catalan case is a question of human and democratic rights. Both Amnesty Internationl and a UN group have pointed that out. And the right to self-determination is also a question of international law. The European Court of Justice has already started making important rulings. The new Spanish government will hopefully listen, and start a real dialogue, in order to find political solutions to a political crisis. A solution to the Catalan crisis is also necessary in order to create political stability in Spain and in Europe.

– Who has the right to selfdetermination in a postcolonial world?
– There are different opionons on that, but I believe that all people, that have the caracteristics of a nation, such as own language, own culture, own history, own parliament, government and institutions… Geographical definition is of course also an advantage, like it is for  the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Scotland and Catalonia. If you have been a sovereign nation, before and historically, it should also strengthen your right.

– In a recent trip to Barcelona you visited Carme Forcadell, Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Turull and Raul Romeva in jail. What was the experience like?
– It was a very strong, inspirational and emotional experience. I will always be thankful for this opportunity to meet them. I wanted to show them my and our support, both on behalf of me personally and from our political party and from the Faroe Islands, and from the president of the Icelandic parliament. It was an almost surrealistic experience with all these steel doors, ending up in this small room of concrete with a small window to meet these defenders of democracy and self-determination, who are in prison for doing what they were elected to do, on behalf of so many people in Catalonia. The first thing I noticed outside the Lledoners prison was the yellow ribbons on the road. The same ribbon was on my coat. The staff at the prison were very nice. I was allowed to bring some papers with me and I chose to bring the Appeal from my political party, Tjóðveldi (Republican/Independence party in the Faroe Islands), to the Spanish government, and a picture of my political colleagues in the Faroese parliament holding “Free Forcadell” posters. After passing all the steel doors, and walking across a concrete courtyard with high fences, I met with them in a small room. We discussed their situation, the situation in Catalonia and I told them about the Faroe Islands, and our long road towards independence. We had a very good talk and discussion. Jordi Cuixart, Jordi Turull and Raül Romeva are all continuing their fight for the right of the people of Catalonia to self-determination. They were strong and positive. It was so good to meet them, and to experience that the time in prison, despite hunger-strikes and all, is making them stronger and even more ready to continue the fight.

– And with Forcadell?
– After the visit in Lledoners prison I went to the prison where Carme Forcadell is held. Again I had to pass several steel doors to meet her. It was so very inspiring to meet this strong and brave woman. It even turned out that she had been in the Faroe Islands about 10 years ago. We talked about this, and I invited her to come back when she is a free woman again. She informed me of the work she is doing in the prison. Talking to the other women in the prison she had immediately seen that most of the women in the prison are mainly victims. Victims of a bad childhood or victims of a bad relationship. She wanted to help them strengthen their belief in themselves, so they will be stronger when they will are free. The director of the prison has accepted that Carme has personal conversations with other women in the prison, with the purpose of helping them. It is fantastic that she can work for others, for the people, also behind bars. I am sure that she will be able to help a lot of women to get better lifes. Only four years ago the speaker of the Faroese and the Icelandic parliaments visited the Catalan parliament and Carme Forcadell. I gave her greetings from the current speaker of the Faroese Parliament, Jógvan á Lakjuni, and from the current speaker of the Icelandic parliament, Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, who is a political friend of mine and ours in Iceland. Steingrímur J. Sigfússon is one of the few presidents of parliaments in sovereign European states that has openly and publicly sent appeals to the Spanish authorities and parliament to find solutions and to free Carme Forcadell. The visits in both prisons is something I will never forget. I hope and believe that they will be free in the near future, because they are victims of political lawfare. The day after my visit, Amnesty International stated that Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez must be released immediately. And the UN working group on arbitrary detention has also told the Spanish authorities to free the “political prisoners”.

– Do you consider them as politcal prisoners?
– Yes. There is no doubt that these politicians and leaders are in prison because they did what they were elected for. Putting them in prison is a way of using lawfare and to escape political solutions to a political crisis.

 – Could you imagine a Faroese politician sitting in jail in Copenhaguen for similar charges?
– No, not in 2019. This would be a politically very unwise and  undemocratic step. The result would be that the people of the Faroe Islands would demand independence immediately. The current Danish law of penal and criminal code permits the Danish authorities to take action against anyone who threatens the sovereignity of Denmark, but so far they have never used it to prosecute or to sentence any pro-independence politicians. In 1946 it could have happened. We had an independence referendum in the Faroe Islands in 1946. The referendum was agreed with the Danish government and authorities. But when the result turned out to be yes to independence, the Danish authorites would not accept the result. The Faroese parliament was abolished and a new election for the Faroese parliament was called. Historians have revealed that the Danish authorites were ready to use police force and probably also military force back in 1946 if the parliament had not accepted to be abolished. Unfortunately the pro-independence parties did not get a majority after the election and instead of establishing the Faroe Islands as a sovereign country, the new Faroese government negotiated a new Home Rule law for the Faroe Islands.

– How broad was this Home Rule?
– The Home Rule law established the Faroe Islands as a self-governing nation within the Danish Kingdom. Today the Faroese parliament has legislative powers on most parts of our society and according to the Home Rule law, the Faroese parliament can get legislative powers in all areas, exept defense policy and foreign policy, broadly speaking. Still the Faroe Islands today make their own bilateral agreements with other countries on trade. We also have our own tax agreements, own fisheries negotiations, own agreements on education, culture and so on. And the Faroe Islands are not a member of the EU although Denmark is a member of the EU. We collect our own taxes, and decide how to spend and prioritize these. So in reality we are very near to being an independent state. My dream and hope is that we will change the current cooperation between Denmark and the Faroe Islands into a so called “free association cooperation” between equal and sovereign nations. We could continue to cooperate on all areas that we cooperate today, but it would give us the status of an independent state, better opportunities to prosper and open doors internationally.

– In February 2019 you signed a cooperation agreement with Catalan minister Puigneró on digitalisation. What was Spain’s reaction?
– As a Minister of Finance and responsible for digitalisation in the Faroe Islands, I did not personally receive any reactions from the Spanish authorities. But I was warned that cooperation with Catalonia could have consequenses for our diplomatic relations with Spain. Because the Spanish authorities are using all sorts of political and diplomatic “weapons” to prevent Catalonia from making international agreements with other nations. When I was in Catalonia in November, I was informed that now the Spanish government is even trying to annul the signed Memorandum of Understanding between the government of Catalonia and the Faroe Islands from February 2019. Our lawyers do not see any legal problems in this cooperation. It is sad that this is happening, because this digital cooperation will benefit both the Faroe Islands and Catalonia, and therefore it will benefit an important part of Spain. If the Spanish government is interested in cooperation on digitalization with the Faroe Islands, they are of course always welcome to contact the Faroese government. We are cooperating with several nations on digitalization – all the Nordic countries and the Baltic countries and Catalonia.

– Spain has recently passed a law limiting digital freedom…
– This is very worrying and unacceptable. What is the difference between China and Europe, if digital censorship – even without having to go to court – is allowed in Spain? I sincerely hope that the Spanish government and parliament will reconsider this law. If not, I hope and believe that the EU authorities will ask for it.

– Are basic civil rights more in danger today than a decade ago?
– Among the biggest threats against democracy in today’s society, and therefore also civil rights, is fake news and the undermining of facts and research. We are experiencing this all over the world these days. We experience it in the Faroe Islands. We experience it in the Nordic countries. We are experiencing it in Europe. The digital world and the social media are being exploited by some to create a false reality and to undermine the facts. We must reverse this trend. We must show that digitalization must be used to ensure a better everyday life for citizens, to create better public services and greater transparency in public administration, greater competitiveness in business, and more democracy and trust – and can also be used to create a significantly more sustainable world. The only way to ensure this is to strengthen our international digital cooperation. I am very pleased that an experienced and talented person from the Nordic countries has become the EU Commissioner for Digitization – and Vice President of the EU Commission. I have high hopes for Margrethe Vestager. I am sure that she will do her very best to ensure democratic rights for all citizens of Europe, including democracy and rights in the digital world, which is proving to fill a larger and larger part of our daily lives.

– Should we defend digital rights then?
– Yes. Unfortunately we are seeing several countries around the world using the digital tools to increase control and censorship. In that way, we see that people in many countries are losing basic civil rights. That’s why it is so important to ensure the digital rights of people. The Charter of digital rights and responsibilities in Catalonia is visionary and is also an inspiration for us in the Faroe Islands and therefore for us in the Nordic countries. And the situation in Spain is alarming. Europe has to be among the frontrunners when it comes to upholding democratic values. If we do not do this in one part of Europe, it could be accepted in other parts of Europe sooner or later.

– The Faroe Islands postponed a referendum in April 2018 on a new constitution that clearly compromised with the right of selfdetermination. Why exactly was the vote postponed?
– The government from 2015 – september 2019 had planned a referendum on a new Faroese constitution and there have been many meetings and negotiations regarding this the last 4 years. In 2001 an independence referendum was planned. After threats from the Danish Government saying that indpendence would have huge negative consequenses for the Faroe Islands, only accepting a short time to cut important parts of our cooperation, and showing no will to agree on a democratic and good way to continue the cooperation as two equal and sovereign states, one of the Faroese Government parties got “cold feet” and the 2001 referendum was cancelled. Instead the Faroese parliament got more powers, the economy was made even more self-sufficient and the work on a new Faroese constitution continued. There has been ongoing work with the new constitution for 20 years. The draft legislation is finished and has been in the parliament. Even though all political parties and a lot of other people have participated in the making of the constitution, it has not been possible to get all the political parties to accept full support of the current draft. Of course it is of great importance that a new constitution is based on the will of the people and has broad political support, before a referendum. When we could not get the big opposition parties to support a referendum in 2018, it was postponed. Unfortunately. In my view, the only thing missing now are small details. All parties agree on the Faroese people being a nation with the right to self-determination. And this is stated in the draft. All parties also agree on all the fundamental rights and responsibilities that our nation should have. Interestingly, the wording regarding our current constitutional status and the wording regarding which steps we will take when we choose to become an independent state was even received positively by the Danish authorities. Of course because they have their own interpretations of the wording. And probably the diplomatic way is to have two sets of interpretations of the wording. The Danish authorities have theirs, and the Faroese authorities another one. The same goes for the Home Rule law from 1948. In reality we chose independence in 1946 and since then we have moved towards becoming a more and more independent nation.

– Catalans are often asked if they see an independent Catalonia as economically viable. What about the Faroe Islands?
– The Faroe Islands have a strong economy, and we have an independent fiscal policy. Our income and our GDP is even higher than in Denmark. Our debt is very low and the Government has had large surpluses on its budgets since 2016. We have population growth, growth in jobs, the unemployment rate is now less than 1%, and the economy is growing about 6-7% this year. Therefore our rating from Moody’s has improved, and is now Aa2, which is the same as the one for France, for example. Our total land and sea territory is 302.000 km2. Therefore we have enormous ressources and most fish ressources per capita  in the world. Salmon farming is a big part of our export and tourism is growing fast. We have a national Faroese airline, Atlantic Airways, with direct flights to Barcelona, Paris, Edinburgh, Bergen, Mallorca, Reykjavík, Copenhagen and soon also to New York. At the same time we have chosen to focus on digitalization and to be among the digital frontrunners. This has created lots of jobs within IT. Our economy is therefore getting more and more diverse and strong.

– Do you get transfers from Denmark?
– Historically the Faroe Islands has received a block grant from Denmark. But today it is a fixed amount that becomes an increasingly smaller part of our economy: only 3% of our GDP and 6% of the total public income. At the same time the government has had surpluses that are almost the same size as the grant for the last couple of years. The Faroese economy and public sector are therefore not dependent on the grant anymore. Personally, I would prefer if we cancelled it as soon as possible. It makes no sense to receive money from another country that has higher debt and lower income per capita than we have.

– How strong is the pro-independence movement in the Faroe Islands?
In general, I would say that 1/3 would like independence right away, 1/3 would like independence over a couple of years after an indpendence process, and 1/3 would like to continue with the current situation. If the people of the Faroe Islands were given the opportunity to vote at an independence referendum, I believe that that there would be a majority for independence. This is an opportunity that normally only comes once in a lifetime for most nations. There is full agreement on our right to self-determination and there is also full agreement on continuing to become as independent at possible, for example when it comes to legisative powers, the economy and our foreign policy. Five out of seven political parties in the Faroese parliament have indpendence and the Faroe Islands as a sovereign state as one of their goals. One party is a unionist party, which wants to continue as now, and the other one is the socialist party, which is divided when it comes to independence: some are for it and some are against it. The current parliament has 19 MPs from the pro-independence parties and 14 MPs from the unionist and socialist parties. The current government consists of 2 pro-independence parties and the unionist party. Unfortunately, they have no plans for a referendum on the constitution, but they are demanding an even more independent Faroese foreign policy.

– Do you think you will ever see an independent Catalonia or independent Faroe Islands?
– It will, of course, be up to the people of Catalonia and the people of the Faroe Islands to decide the future of our nations. The important thing is to ensure the right of the people to choose their future, the right to self-determination. I hope and believe that we will see an independent Faroe Islands in the next 10 years. We have never been nearer than now. Historic changes for nations and countries happen when there is some sort of historic gap. These opportunities come a few times in a lifetime. The next time that a historic gap comes, we will be more ready than ever before to take the final steps and to become an independent state with full membership in the international community. The only thing missing now is that the politicians that are pro-independence cooperate to give the Faroese people the chance to choose the future of our nation in a new independence referendum.

– You don’t expect major hurdles?
– We will have to have our right to self-determination internationally approved by the UN because we will not get independence easily. Even though the Danish government says that we can have an independence referendum and that they will accept the result, there are no guarantiees of what would happen in real life afterwards. In 1946, the Faroese parliament was abolished after a majority for independence. In 2001, when the independence referendum was planned, there was no will to find a good agreement on how to cooperate as two independent states. And there are always ways to prevent a democratic process. That’s why it is so extremely important to have the right to self-determination internationally approved before a referendum. It is very worrying that not even the Danish government sends a clear message to the United Nations that the people of the Faroe Islands have the right to self-determination. The Faroese parliament has unanimously passed a statement that the people of the Faroe Islands have the right to self-determination and the Government of the Faroe Islands has sent it to the UN. But the only way to fully ensure our right is if the Danish government also states it and sends it to the UN. We, nations without a fully sovereign state, have a common interest and obligation in getting our peoples right to self-determination approved and secured by the international community. This is yet another common goal, and an important issue to cooperate on, for both the people of the Faroe Islands and Catalonia.

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