Greenland’s new leadership will be challenged by a push for faster independence

IA won this week's election by opposing a controversial mine, but they'll need to work with parties pushing for a speedy break from Denmark.

By Martin Breum - April 9, 2021
Greenland’s flag flies over the capital Nuuk in a 2019 file photo. (Krestia DeGeorge)

Earlier this week, Greenlanders elected a new parliament with a majority from the center-left Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party. It’s only the second time in the 40 years since Greenland attained home rule that IA will head a governing coalition, rather than their main rival Siumut.

The election was largely dominated by debate about the controversial rare earths and uranium mine proposed at the Kuannersuit mountain in South Greenland.

But in the course of my reporting during the election it’s become ever clearer that Greenland’s colonial legacy has not all been relegated to the past — and a push for faster independence from Denmark will be an important force for the new government to reckon with.

[Greenland voters hand mandate to left-leaning challengers]

To many in Greenland, the past is still present and painful, and independence and secession from Denmark, the former colonial power that still holds sovereignty over Greenland, remains an appealing way forward.

The new leaders who are taking over after Tuesday’s election are pragmatists, but to build a majority in Inatsisartut, the parliament, they may have to form a coalition with those more eager to secede. And outside of parliament they will have to manage tangible impatience with Greenland’s status as only a semi-autonomous part of the Danish Kingdom.

Members of IA (Inuit Ataqatigiit) celebrate in Nuuk following the exit polls during Greenland’s election on April 6, 2021. IA’s opposition to a controversial mine helped propel it to electoral victory, but it will need to partner with other parties who are pushing for faster independence from Denmark. (Ritzau Scanpix / via Reuters)

Múte Inequnaaluk Bourup Egede, the 34-year-old leader of IA, will almost certainly be the next head of Naalakkersuisut, the government in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. As I write, he is working to form a majority coalition, very possibly with the Naleraq party (Naleraq means Beacon). And among Greenland’s parties, Naleraq is the most eager to see Greenland’s independence.

This may be Egede’s perhaps main political challenge: How will he deal with those most keen to secede? How will he satisfy their impatience and maintain their support without sacrificing his own inclination: To go slow, cooperate closely with Denmark and look for independence only in a distant future?

One step at the time

When we meet at his party headquarters in the parliamentary buildings on one of the wet, snowy days of the campaign Egede uses a catching phrase: “Every morning I wake up with the mindset to make sure that also this day will bring Greenland closer to independence.”

In truth, however, Egede and other key figures within IA are supremely pragmatic as far as independence goes.

Many of the leaders of IA, including Egede, are city-oriented and better educated than the average person in Greenland. They are not as closely associated with Greenland’s many fishermen and hunters as most previous regimes. IA’s focus will likely be on issues like tax reform to combat inequality, the deep social ills in Greenland and on the environment — not on rapid moves towards independence.

Mute Bourup Egede, chairman of the party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), poses for a photo on April 5, ahead of parliamentary elections in Greenland. IA won the largest share of votes and Egede is likely to become Greenland’s next premier, but he and IA will need to work with other parties that are pushing for faster independence from Denmark. (Emil Helms / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

IA’s electoral victory this week may be attributed in particular to Egede’s unwavering “no go” to the controversial Kuannersuit mining project. From this mine, uranium would follow valuable rare earths out of the ground and could threaten the natural surroundings — but the mine seems like only a remote prospect. To IA the environment has immediate top priority; independence not so.

Egede’s government is likely to cooperate closely with Denmark to bring tangible, concrete results for Greenland. And he has no intention to force the committee working on Greenland’s first ever constitution — an important step toward independence — into higher gear.

During the electoral campaign, his main competitors from the Siumut Party, which has held power since 1979, except for four years, promised a popular referendum on the constitution by 2023. But Egede dismisses this suggestion: “We will give the commission the time it needs,” he tells me.

The roadmap

I need, however, only to take a few steps down the hall to the offices of Naleraq, Egede’s potential coalition partners, to find the most elaborate roadmap to independence I have encountered.

Pele Broberg, Naleraq’s energetic strategist, is the main author. Time is ripe for negotiations with Copenhagen about Greenland’s secession, he finds. Or rather negotiations about “statehood-creation,” as he and others in Greenland now prefer to call it. Secession sounds too negative. Basically no one, including Broberg, wants to cut all ties to Denmark. Preferably, cooperation should continue after independence, only on more equal terms, devoid of a colonial mold and with Greenland participating as an independent state.

[A rare poll hints at real differences between Danish and Greenlandic thinking on Greenland independence]

Broberg draws his roadmap on a whiteboard. He is trained as a pilot, he has studied economy at Copenhagen Business School and for a short while served as Greenland’s Minister of Finance. In 2019, when U.S. President Donald Trump suggested the U.S. might buy Greenland, Broberg aired cautious interest and suggested further talks:

“We now have a real alternative to the block grant from Denmark. We should explore if the U.S. is willing to assist us free ourselves from Denmark,” he wrote on the internet.

A 2019 file photo shows the Thule Air Base, the United States Air Force’s northernmost base, in northern Greenland. (Ida Guldbaek Arentsen / Ritzau Scanpix / via Reuters)

To Broberg, the message from the U.S. seems clear: Greenland’s strategic importance to the U.S. has become so pivotal, that Washington is likely to provide at least as much support to Greenland as Denmark, if and when Greenland shows sufficient interest.

“Denmark has made us believe that only the Danes are willing to provide Greenland with an annual block grant, but then Trump put his cards on the table and said that he also wants to play,” Broberg tells me. His critics claim he will readily sell Greenland’s soul to the U.S., but that is exaggeration, he says:

“We have no interest in becoming state number 51 in the USA. If you ask which would be my first choice, I would tell you Denmark, but it is true that the next natural step would be the U.S.,” he says.

Free association

In 2000, Denmark swiftly dismissed a secession attempt  by the Faroe Islands, another semi-autonomous part of the Danish Kingdom. That does not, however, deter Broberg. The Faroese could not point towards strong interest from the U.S. as an alternative. Broberg imagines a possible future with the U.S., if negotiations with Denmark fail.

He talks of the island state of Palau in the Pacific, where 17,000 people live in free association with the U.S. Like two other island states, Palau is an independent state which leaves defense and security matters to Washington and receives in return money for its support. Greenland could organize itself in the same way, Broberg suggests.

He would like to begin negotiations with Copenhagen as soon as possible. Perhaps Denmark could still take care of Greenland’s defense after independence. Perhaps the two could still use the same currency and so forth. But Copenhagen should understand from the outset that an independent Greenland will willingly tie itself to the U.S. if exchanges with Copenhagen do not lead to the desired results.

[How a US pivot to the north changes the European Arctic]

I ask why on Earth Denmark should agree to negotiate on such terms, but Broberg draws a line here. He does not want to weaken Greenland’s bargaining position by revealing his analysis of Copenhagen’s thinking.

On election night, Broberg and other Naleraq stalwarts follow the vote count on television at Nuuk’s largest hotel.

“Our strategy worked,” Broberg beams. During the campaign, Naleraq made deliberate moves to appear cooperative, and as I write this negotiations with Egede and IA are underway.

On Thursday, Egede said he expects a coalition to be formed no later than April 15.

A statue of Danish missionary Hans Egede overlooks the old harbor in Nuuk, Greenland. (Emil Helms / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

Prior to the election I plowed through the slush to Nuuk’s old colonial harbor. This year it is exactly 300 years since Hans Egede, the first Danish missionary, settled In Greenland, but celebration of the tricennial in Nuuk has been cancelled. A statue of Hans Egede was vandalized last year. A memorial stone in celebration of the first visit by a Danish King in 1921 sits utterly forgotten in the snow.

Not surprisingly, Greenland’s most consistent defender of Greenland’s ties to Denmark, Danish-speaking Tillie Martinussen, was not reelected on Tuesday. Not even her calls for attention to Greenland’s most vulnerable helped:

“We keep discussing all what is unimportant, while holes are bored in the ship. We are about to go down, since we are taking in water,” she told me before the election. “In 2020, some 1,200 people threatened to commit suicide. We have 41 suicides a year. We are world leaders in this matter. And then we not even counting Greenlanders commiting suicide in Denmark.”

New People

On several occasions during my reporting, people tell me of their dreams of independence and departures from Danish norms and influence in Greenland. It is likely among these groups that Egede and IA will find their most difficult challenges.

In the midst of the electoral campaign a group of well established citizens launched a movement for the promotion of independence — and they want it rather today than tomorrow. They call themselves Inuit Nutaat: New People.

On their website they listed 30 misdeeds in Greenland for which they hold Denmark responsible. Most lately Denmark has “intensified a process of assimilation,” the website reads. Secession must happen soon “if assimilation is not to lead to actual ethnic cleansing.”

Graffiti seen on a building in Greenland’s capital Nuuk in a 2019 file photo calls for independence. (Krestia DeGeorge)

Six of the group’s founders invited me for coffee in Qinngorput, Nuuk’s youngest section. We meet in an apartment with an ocean view, snow on the balcony. My hosts are articulate, educated volunteers.

“This is not about Denmark, this is about Greenland. We would like to feel whole as human beings,” says Arnajaraq Poulsen, who runs her own business.

Ann-Britta Olsvig, who is in marketing and branding, agrees: “I am strong, I have resources, but I don’t feel whole. Our culture and language means a lot to me. There is a lot that has to be tidied up, before we can feel as if we are whole. It is not only alcoholics who feel like that,“ she says.

“I do not wish for my 19-year-old daughter that she must talk of her identity and independence as something missing when she reaches my age. It would give us a very different feeling if Greenland was an independent nation,” she says.

Egede and the IA party want to solve Greenland’s social problems and consolidate the economy before proceeding towards secession, but Inuit Nutaat disagree:

“If you wait until everything is good enough, it will never happen. The definition of good enough will continue to shift,” says Verner Hammeken, one of the group’s founders and CEO of Royal Arctic Line, Greenland’s publicly owned shipping company — and arguably the most important companies in Greenland. RAL has a monopoly on container freight to and from Greenland. It brings supplies and handles much of Greenland’s all-important export of seafood.

New residential high-rises dwarf an older home in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital in a 2019 file photo. A housing shortage is one of several social issues Greenland must address — but Greenlanders differ over whether or not such problems must be solved before pursuing independence. (Krestia DeGeorge)

Hammeken is careful to keep his responsibilities separate, but his personal history indicates that the vision of independence is not only talk.

After 37 years abroad, many in the employ of Maersk, one of the world’s leading shipping companies, Hammeken became CEO of Royal Arctic Line in 2013. Immediately, he began cutting ties to Denmark. Danish-speaking managers disappeared. Headquarters were moved from Denmark to Nuuk, subsidiaries in Denmark were sold. A 300-year-old tradition of single-stranded traffic to and from Denmark is being dismantled. RAL has entered into a partnership with the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip which runs freight all over the North Atlantic, including to Portland, Maine, only about six hours by truck from New York.

Hammeken’s critics accuse him of playing hazardly with Royal Arctic Line only to further Greenland’s secession from Denmark. Hammeken insists that his moves are based on sound business decisions and so far he has had the tacit support of Greenland’s political leaders.

Now he talks as a part of Inuit Nutaat: “We regard the large challenges in Greenland  —  the housing shortage, the low level of education, the social ills — as symptoms. We are treating the symptoms without any recognition of the actual causes,” he says.

“We find that the causes are our lack of identity, self-regard and a lacking sense of community. We must find ourselves as whole humans in order to create a healthy point of departure. Only then can we create a system not copied from Denmark and replace the view of the people here as subhumans,” he says.

U.S. interests

I ask the Inuit Nutaat members about some of the main arguments against Greenland’s secession: The economy will collapse because the block grant from Denmark, which covers some 50 percent of all public expenditure in Greenland, will discontinue. Further, only 56,000 people live in Greenland — never enough to run a whole nation. Finally, they will not be able to defend themselves if the Danish navy leaves. As a result, the U.S. will swallow Greenland. The U.S. will not tolerate a vacuum of power, so Greenland’s independence is no more than a treacherous illusion.

These are common objections, and my hosts seem to have answers to them all: Denmark, they say, will continue to assist an independent Greenland for at least 30 years, first and foremost because Greenland represents 98 percent of the territory of the Danish Kingdom. But also because Denmark will pay to maintain the historic ties to Greenland, thereby preserving the very soul of the Kingdom. Also, they say, Denmark will want to preserve its position as an Arctic state and, not the least, Denmark’s important alliance with the U.S., which has been strengthened by military cooperation in Greenland for more than 80 years.

“If you can decide to build a bridge across the Great Belt and a bridge across Femern,” says Hammeken, referencing two large bridges in Denmark, “you can also decide to pay for a cultural bridge to Greenland.”

“It is not as if we will become an isolated island,” adds Lili Chemnitz, an author. An independent Greenland will simply summon experts from other countries to deal with any task Greenland may not be able to handle alone.

But what about defense, I ask. Greenland has none.

They talk about Iceland, which seceded from Denmark in 1944. Iceland is doing well, and has no military defense of its own. Fighter planes from other NATO member states guarantee deterrence of any Russian threats. Like Pele Broberg from Naleraq, my hosts from Inuit Nutaat expect that the U.S. will be supportive.

The Salvation Army

Shortly before the election I visit the soup kitchen of the Salvation Army to find out what ordinary Greenlanders think. I meet Ole Åge Nuko who lives at Kialaarfik, a nearby shelter for the homeless. He is 32, healthy but unemployed. He lives on social welfare — some $100 every second week.

“It is not a lot of money when you live in a cold place. You don’t get enough to eat,” he says in Danish since I don’t speak Greenlandic. We finger-pick cod skin and bones from the soup.

Ole Åge Nuko eats soup at the Salvation Army in Nuuk, Greenland. (Martin Breum)

As a child, Nuko paid short visits to Denmark. Now he considers moving there since social welfare is better there. He seems almost frightened when I bring up Greenland’s potential secession, but he soon recovers: “I don’t believe in it right now. There is not enough housing, not enough jobs,” he says, but then regroups: “Yes, perhaps it would be fun to try something new. I am sure we could handle it,” he says.

In another apartment in Qinngorput, the new part of town, Magdalene and Aqqalu Augustussen are equally in doubt. She is 35, an educational expert. He is 34, a graphic designer. They are parents of two, hardworking, everyday heroes I have visited before:

“My heart says yes, my brain tells me no. We will probably do it one day, but it is not time yet,” says Aqqalu. His wife Magdalene is uncertain, but like the founders of Inuit Nutaat she is bitter that her fluent and educated Greenlandic does not seem to suffice in Greenland today:

”I am quite good at what I do. I give much to our community even if I sometimes find it difficult to express myself in Danish. We could get much further as a nation, if language wasn’t such a problem,” she sighs.

“Will Greenland become independent in your lifetime?” I ask.

“Yes, maybe. But I also expect to grow quite old,” she says.