How Nordic nations can provide Brexit inspiration for Scotland

Scotland should look to the tiny Faroe Islands for inspiration on refusing to follow the rest of the UK out of Europe, it has been suggested.

Experts will gather at a conference in Edinburgh on Saturday (29th October), backed by the Scottish Government, to discuss how the experience of other Nordic nations could provide lessons for Scotland during Brexit.

The differing relationships between the Nordic countries and Europe will be examined -while Finland and Denmark are EU members, Iceland and Norway belong only to the European Economic Area (EEA).

Meanwhile the Faroe Islands and Greenland, both territories of Denmark with home rule governments, are not part of the EU.

Broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch, director of Nordic Horizons, which is organising the conference together with Edinburgh University, said the Nordic nations had a case study of every option Scotland might want to pursue – or not – when it comes to Brexit.

She said: “We hear these claims that there can’t be opt-outs (for Scotland) – the Faroes and Greenland are living examples of that not being true.

“But equally you would have to say, they are also living examples of tiny little devolved nations doing quite well outside the EU.

“So the Nordic nations have within them every kind of different example – cautionary and otherwise – which you might want to learn from.”

Riddoch, said the example of the relationship between Denmark and the Faroe Islands and Greenland was one of “very rational civilized devolution”.

In the early 1970s, when Denmark joined the European Economic Community (EEC) – the predecessor to the EU – the self-governing Faroe Islands decided it would not join.

Home Rule was for Greenland was only introduced in 1979, so it automatically became a member of the EEC when Denmark joined. However a referendum subsequently held on membership resulted in Greenland leaving the EEC in February 1985.

It has been suggested that Scotland could do a ‘reverse Greenland’ by staying within the EU while England and Wales leave.

But Riddoch argued a better comparison would be with the case of the Faroe Islands – which she said was often overlooked as it was so small.

She said: “It actually had powers as a devolved government to do trade treaties and no-one denied the Faroes had the right to go their own way.

“If anyone wants to draw a parallel the other way with what Scotland wants to do, I would have thought if Scotland never wants to leave (the EU) the parallel is a reverse Faroes, not a reverse Greenland.”

Riddoch added the aim of Nordic Horizons conference was to “provoke discussion”, rather than draw any conclusions.

The speakers at the event include Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson – a former Icelandic Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs who was responsible for the country’s negotiations to join the EEA in the 1990’s.

He argued Scotland could learn from the Icelandic experience showing there is an option apart from full membership of the EU.

He said: “It means full access to the inner market, free movement of goods, free access to services, free movement of people and a common financial market.

“This is the vast common area of the European Union, but it does not mean adoption of the European monetary union.”

Professor Mary Hilson, of the department of culture and society at Aarhus University, Denmark, and author of ‘The Nordic Model’, pointed out relationships between the Nordic countries and Europe were complex and constantly changing.

“If we are talking about Swedish attitudes or Danish attitudes to the EU, behind that is a whole array of different groups, political interests and economic interests that all have different views. And those also change over time quite a lot,” she said.

“We saw that with the (UK) referendum – you can’t talk about a British attitude to it, as there are two quite divided groups.”

The conference will be opened by Culture and Europe minister Fiona Hyslop.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Exchanging knowledge and experience with our Nordic partners has always been of great benefit to Scotland.

“As Scotland works to protect its place in Europe, this Euro Nordics event presents the opportunity for Scotland to learn from the Nordics’ varied relationships with the European Union.”

*For more information on the conference visit


Sweden has the largest population of the Nordic countries, of around 9.7 million people and has been an EU member since 1995.

The result of a non-binding referendum on membership of the EU held in November 1993 was 52.3 per cent in favour.

In 2003, the country voted against adopting the euro in a referendum in 2003.

Total spending by the EU in Sweden was €1.69 billion euros in 2014 – equivalent to 0.38% of gross national income (GNI) – while the total contribution to the EU budget was €3.8billion euros (0.86 per cent of GNI). The comparable figures for the UK are €6.95 billion euro spending by the EU (0.32% of GNI) and €11.3billion contribution to the EU budget (0.52% of GNI).

There has been speculation that Brexit could spark moves in Sweden to leave the EU, but Sweden’s mainstream parties support it continuing as a member. One poll conducted shortly after Britain voted to leave in June found 63% of Swedes said they would vote to remain if a referendum was held.


Finland, with a population of around 5.4million, has also been a member of the EU since 1995. An advisory referendum held in 1994 saw 56.9% of voters approving the move to join.

It was one of the first wave of countries to adopt the euro as its currency on 1 January 1999.

Total spending by the EU in Finland was €1.06 billion euros in 2014 – equivalent to 0.52% of gross national income (GNI) – while the total contribution to the EU budget was €1.7billion euros (0.87% of GNI).

Economic difficulties in the country have led to some calls for a referendum on EU membership, but a poll following the Brexit vote found more than 69 per cent of Finns were not in favour of holding such a vote.


Norway, which has a population of around 5 million, is in the European Economic Area (EEA), together with fellow Nordic country Iceland, and a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). It means the countries are on the same terms as the EU member states in terms of the free movement of goods, people, services and capital.

More than 80 per cent of Norway’s exports go to the EU, and more than 60 per cent of imports come from EU countries. It also participates in a number of EU programmes including the Horizon 2020 scientific research scheme and the Erasmus exchange programme for university students. The Norwegian government does not regularly publish its contribution to the EU, but it is estimated to be around €8.9 billion euros a year.

Norway held a referendum on joining the then European Community in 1972, which the ‘no’ side won with a 53.5% vote against. A referendum on joining the EU was also held in 1994, but again was rejected with 52.2 per cent voting no.


Denmark has a population of around 5.6million and has been a member of the EU since it joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to the EU, along with Britain and Ireland in 1973. A referendum held the year before on the issue of joining resulted 63.3 per cent in favour of joining. It has never adopted the Euro however, with a referendum on the issue in 2000 ending with 53.2% voting against.

Total spending by the EU in Denmark was €1.5 billion euros in 2014 – equivalent to 0.57% of gross national income (GNI) – while the total contribution to the EU budget was €2.2 billion euros (0.84% of GNI).

There have been calls by Eurosceptic politicians to hold a referendum on EU membership, but the morning after the results of the Brexit vote was announced, the Danish prime minister ruled out such a move. One poll suggested support for the country’s membership of the EU had risen in the wake of Brexit, up by 10 per cent to 69 per cent.


Greenland, which has a population of around 56,000, and the Faroe Islands, which have a population of around 49,000, are both part of Denmark but self-governing.

When Denmark joined the EEC in 1973, the Faroes decided against following suit in order to not become subject to the Common Fisheries Policy. With fishing accounting for 90 per cent of exports from the Faroe Islands, concerns remain about becoming a member but having little say in EU policy which may impact on this due to the small size of the country, despite some politicians calling for membership.

Greenland became a member of the EU when Denmark joined, but a referendum on the issue was held after Home Rule was introduced to the country in 1982, with 53% voting to leave the EEC – again with major concerns relating to the Common Fisheries policy. Brexit has led to some calls by some politicians and business leaders for Greenland to rejoin the EU, citing concerns over slowness to diversify the economy away from fishing.


Joining the EU has been a contentious issue in recent years for Iceland, which has a population of 330,000. It is a member of the EEA and EFTA, but has long been at odds with the EU over the Common Fisheries Policy – with fishing representing a vital part of the Icelandic economy.

However the economic turmoil which followed the devastating financial crash which hit the country in 2008 prompted belief that joining the EU would be the way to provide some stability. In 2009 the Icelandic parliament instructed the government to make an application for EU membership, with the plan to hold a referendum on the issue when the results of negotiations were known.

But following a change in government the negotiations were put on hold and in 2015 it announced it was dropping the bid to join the EU – a decision which led to protests in the streets demanding a referendum on the issue.

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