Before he can chat, Jacob Isbosethsen just needs to have a word with the chef. The last guests have been ushered out and he just wants to say thanks. And get a bite to eat for himself. He was too busy meeting and greeting the throng of guests who’d turned up Saturday to the opening of Greenland’s representative office in Reykjavík to eat any of the Greenlandic fish and prawns or the Icelandic lamb. All artistically prepared and displayed and served on plates with those little hooks you can hang your glass on.
We go outside to get some fresh air and talk about a job that is, in everything except name, an ambassador.
A lawyer who’s made a career in the Greenlandic foreign service, Isbosethsen was aware of the requirements being Greenland’s first representative in a country would place on him as a diplomat. To his surprise, though, setting up shop in Reykjavík has involved a few hands-on skills more suited to homebuilding than nation-building. Such as helping to install new electrical cables inside the walls.
A lack of space at the Danish embassy in Reykjavík meant that Greenland’s fourth representative office — unlike the three existing ones in Copenhagen, Brussels and Washington — needed to be set up in a separate building, a former office that, in addition to ordinary renovation, needed certain security upgrades to allow it to meet foreign-ministry standards.
“Until last week this place was a mess. We’ve cleaned up and painted and got it in shape for the opening, but things like computers and telephones still need to be sorted out. I couldn’t have done anything of without help and support without our landlord,” he says.
He underscores that he’s had plenty of help from the Danish embassy (about a 10-minute walk away) and the Faroese representative office (cater-corner across the adjacent intersection) in setting up shop. (He’s also had temporary help from one of the employees at the Washington office.)
But for Isbosethsen, who will be the office’s sole employee once things settle down, that’s meant a crash course in many of the things Greenland’s other foreign representatives didn’t have to think about when they set up their operations.
“If we ever open another representative office — be that in London or Beijing or wherever suits the government best — it’d be easier to do it in the Danish embassy there,” he says.
Until yesterday, Greenland’s interests in Iceland — as they are in most other countries — have been looked out for by the local Danish embassy. For some issues — things like foreign affairs and defense policy — that will continue to be the case. But for any power that has been devolved to Nuuk — a growing list that, for now, includes things like commerce, culture, mining and environmental protection — it will be Isbosethsen’s responsibility and he believes that there are areas where working directly with the authorities in Iceland is more practical than working through the Danish mission.
Isbosethsen brings up tourism as one such area. Iceland and Greenland have long worked together to help Greenland tap into Iceland’s astronomical tourism growth by selling it as an add-on. And Iceland, he jokes, is happy to send some of the 2 million visitors it gets each year somewhere else.
Another area is healthcare; Greenland has an agreement that allows it to send patients to Icelandic hospitals for specialised treatment, making for a much shorter trip than to Copenhagen. Having someone stationed in Reykjavík will make it easier for the officials in the two capitals to work together.
This afternoon, though, Isobosethsen’s job has been protocol. Receive guests. Be on his toes when someone particularly important arrives. Show them in. Show them around. Show them out. Show them around the corner to point out a crisp new Erfalasorput, Greenland’s red-and-white flag, flapping against a grey sky. And then, on the way back in, stop for a photo under the new coat of arms (it was hung just two hours before the official opening). Everyone crouches against the wind and drizzle. But they manage a smile, because, even though it’s a busy day, it’s a big day. But is it a proud one?
“It’s not only a matter of pride,” Isbosethsen says. “Of course we are very proud and we are a proud people, but a big part of my job is about creating growth and jobs that, in the end, will benefit the people of Greenland and Greenlandic society. And that’s mostly a matter of practical issues, and having someone here permanently will hopefully make taking care of them easier.”
A jack of all trades, in an office of one.