Complex questions about Greenland’s independence are at the center of upcoming elections

ANALYSIS: The future of Greenland's relationship with Denmark is at stake when voters there go to the polls later this month. And the issues are more complicated than you think.

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The harbor of Ilulissat, Greenland, is shown in a fall 2008 photo, the same years as the landmark Ilulissat Declaration. (Vincent van Zeijst / CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

ILULISSAT — Greenland is gearing up for elections on April 24 and there is every reason to believe that the rest of the world may misread what is going on. The question of Greenland’s potential, possible secession from Denmark plays a significant role in the debates here, but the concept of secession in this Greenlandic context is not easy to decipher.

Since 1814 — some would say way before that — Greenland has been part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Since 1721 Greenland’s communities of inuit allowed the first handful of Danish missionaries and traders to settle and the interaction, love, hate and learning between the two groups continues to this day.

In 2009 an overwhelming two-thirds majority in Greenland voted in favor of self rule; a status which allows Greenland extended autonomy within the Kingdom of Denmark. The government in Copenhagen sent notice to the United Nations that fundamental changes had occurred. The people of Greenland were now recognized as a people as this is defined by international law also by Denmark. As a consequence the 57,000 men and women who live in Greenland were suddenly in firm possession of the right to self-determination; basically they are free to sever ties to Denmark at any given time, should they so decide.

How to talk together

So, on a exceedingly beautiful Friday afternoon last week I stood at the edge of the ice on Ilulissat Icefjord marveling at the colossal icebergs. I had come across six of Greenland’s classical open dinghies and their outboard engines; the largest running at 250 HK. The boats were moored to the edge of the ice; ready to move out. Such boats and their masters provide food and income for thousands of families in Greenland; they form the mainstay of ordinary life in most of Greenland’s settlements. One of the owners, a man roughly my own age, was drawing near, painstakingly dragging a 40-liter plastic fuel tank across the ice (snowmobiles are not allowed in this pristine UNESCO-protected area a few kilometers from the center of Ilulissat town).

I wanted badly to talk to this man about the upcoming elections, about fish and Greenland’s potential independence. The Premier of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, has called the elections six months ahead of time precisely because of a rift in his own coalition government over distribution of fishing quotas. The more eager proponents of fast secession from Denmark are breathing down his neck, gaining, it seems, at least some traction among the electorate.

The problem, as it turned out, was that while the owner of the boat was more than willing to talk, he and I were unable to speak with each other. I lived in Greenland for two years when I was young, I travel to Greenland often from my base in Copenhagen, but just like the majority of the 5,000 Danes who live here permanently, I do not speak Greenlandic, and my counterpart—whose name, I found out, is Illooraq Esikias Therkelsen— did not speak Danish. Half the people of Greenland do not speak Danish or speak only very little of it.

Thus, to my frustration, the two of us came to illustrate in our own awkward way the crux of the matter.

For many in Greenland, the question of independence has less to do with money and politics, and much more to do with identity, language, culture and a wish to see their language, history, heritage and values in all their variety placed at the center of what is to come. And as always when questions of identity arise, discussions tend to heat up. The politicians currently engaged in electoral campaigns disagree wholeheartedly about just about all aspects of the potential process towards independence. First and foremost, they do not agree on the speed with which independence should be pursued; some want to act soon, the majority want to wait until Greenland’s economy, educational standards and social cohesion is far better off than today — but they almost all agree that independence is hugely important.    

Perhaps, at the end of the day, the current discussion here in Greenland is not all that different from public discourse about putting “America First”, in post-Brexit Britain, in Catalonia’s bid to break with Spain and in Scotland, where the First Minister and her many allies talk eagerly of divorcing England.

How fast is healthy?

  All the established political parties in Greenland share the vision of an independent Greenland.

Only one very recently established party argues that Greenland will be better off within the Kingdom of Denmark — and the polls so far indicate very limited support for this viewpoint.

But — and this is where many foreign descriptions fail — the large majority of the elected politicians favor a pragmatic approach. As Kim Kielsen, the Premier, often reiterates, he does not want to himself or his contemporaries to decide on secession. He wants to leave that decision to, as he says, his children or even his grandchildren. Political focus at this stage in history should be, he has told me on more than one occasion, on curing the social ills in Greenland — a tragic rate of suicides, the far-too-rampant substance abuse, the far too numerous cases of sexual abuse of minors and the level of unemployment.

Kim Kielsens party, Siumut, and the more leftwing Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), led by the younger Sara Olsvig, both refuse to define timeframes for the process towards independence. They both want to strengthen the economy through increased focus on education and business-friendly reforms before taking any concrete steps towards actual secession.

Also — and foreign descriptions also often fail on this score — independence does not necessarily mean the end of cooperation with Denmark. On the contrary: When Kim Kielsen’s coalition, which also included Sara Olsvig’s party, last year established Greenland’s own constitutional committee, its mandate was two-pronged: The committee is to draft Greenland’s first ever constitution, but also a road-map for free association —  a potential future state of affairs, where an independent Greenland enters into a firm, but voluntary new contract with Denmark.

The content of and the financial arrangements behind such a contract remains at this early point anybody’s guess. The important thing to note, however, is that in Greenland independence does not necessarily mean an all-out discontinuation of the existing collaborative arrangements with Denmark. Many of the leading politicians seem to rather favor a readjustment that would accommodate on the one hand formal independence — but which would also allow, perhaps, the Danish defense force to still defend Greenland’s sovereignty, Greenland to still use Danish kroner for currency, the Royals of Denmark to still also be Royals of Greenland and so forth.  

New signals from Denmark

Until a few days ago such suggestions for a future where Greenland becomes independent and steps outside the boundaries of the constitution of the Danish Kingdom have all been firmly rejected by Denmark.

Greenland — the world’s largest island — represents 98 percent of the terrestrial territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, and no leading Danish politician has ever suggested anything that could be construed as real support for Greenland’s independence.

Previous prime ministers of Denmark have expressed their respect for Greenland’s aspirations, but they have remained firm in their own strong belief in Greenland’s place within the confines of the Danish constitution.

And then recently the unexpected happened. Working on my most recent book “Hvis Grønland river sig løs” (“If Greenland secedes”), published earlier this month, I interviewed the Danish ambassador to India, Peter Taksøe-Jensen, currently one of the most prominent members of the Danish diplomatic corps.

Peter Taksøe-Jensen is a former deputy secretary general of the UN and for five years Danish ambassador to the U.S. He knows the Arctic well: In 2007 he was the chief negotiator for Denmark when the government in Copenhagen brokered the historic Ilulissat Declaration, a successful agreement on politics, climate and power that has shaped the Arctic ever since between the states of the Arctic Ocean; Canada, the U.S., Norway, Russia and the Danish Kingdom.

Now, in an interview that was published in my book, Peter Taksøe-Jensen became the first ever high-ranking Danish official to suggest a future arrangement with Greenland where Greenland steps beyond the constitution of the Kingdom of Denmark and becomes an independent state. He included in his analysis also the Faroe Islands, another part of the Kingdom in the North Atlantic that enjoys roughly the same degree of autonomy as Greenland:  

“Denmark lacks a proactive strategy towards these two parts of the Realm”, he says. “We ought to develop a new different way to tie us together. Perhaps a federation between three states, where the Faroe Islands and Greenland could exercise all the foreign and security policy they want but still in a way where we have a common royal house, the same currency, joint defense and so forth where it is sensible.”

“We could call it a modernized version of the relations between Cook Islands and New Zealand, where Greenland and the Faroe Islands could be members of the UN,” he says.

“They would be independent states but in a federation with us. Relations would be as Greenland and the Faroe Islands want and they could pursue sustainable development of their societies. They could still use the educational system and the health facilities in Denmark if they want, and we would no longer be the irritating, deplorable colonial power that only gives in at the very last moment and therefore pushes them into the arms of Iceland or some other North Atlantic future arrangement of statehood.”

Later I asked our current Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, what he thought of this suggestion. His full answer is in my book, but in short, he flatly rejected the idea:

“I believe that the realm is the desirable format. The search for a new format for our relation is not mine. The way we have developed the realm, the autonomy that has been created within it and the fact that Greenland can still take over a number of tasks that are currently handled by Denmark leaves a lot of options for Greenland to develop within the confines of the realm. I do not express any ambition for change. I am not the one to decide if Greenland becomes independent. I have respect for the life we have together. It is a two-way arrangement, just like a good marriage. You may want to save your marriage, but if your spouse wants out, it would be odd if you did not wish for a fine and forward looking relation after the divorce. But basically I am not looking for good relations after the divorce, because I do not want the divorce.”

Half the budget

Such is the complexity of independence as it is discussed in the electoral campaign here in Greenland.

Two smaller parties push for rapid independence no matter what the prime minister says; one of them even calls for independence by 2021, while the other, led by Greenland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq and Greenland’s former Premier Aleqa Hammond, argues for a rapid takeover of more of the administrative tasks still handled by Denmark.

Meanwhile, the two main parties, as I have already mentioned, maintain that further steps towards independence will only be relevant in a somewhat distant future.

Budgetary support from Denmark still accounts for half of the budget of the Self Rule government in Nuuk, so from a strictly economic point of departure the calls for independence in the short run will of course to some seem completely odd. There is still a long way before Illoraq Esikias Therkelsen, his colleagues and their dinghies and the more industrialized fisheries will make enough money to make up for grants from Denmark. They are very skilled and Greenland’s economy is currently very healthy, but without the grants from Denmark, much would be have to be altered.

Tourism looks promising, airports are about to be enhanced, mining is slowly pinking up, but Greenland would be far from flush if independence happened tomorrow.  

But in the end, as I have tried to describe, these elections — like the ones elsewhere ind the world — are about much more than just funding.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.