Independence and stability are top priorities for Greenland’s new government

By Martin Breum - November 2, 2016

Greenland, to the surprise of many, found itself on Thursday being led by a new unity government that, formally at least, puts an end to years of bitter rivalry between the country’s two major political movements.

The three parties making up the Naalakkersuisut coalition disagree on a number of key issues, but when it comes to the pressing economic and social issues, they have come to a common understanding: “In recognition of the Greenlandic society’s general situation, the parties agree to work towards greater stability … as well as to ensure greater social equality and a stable framework for the development of political solutions,” the coalition’s manifesto states.

Danes will pay attention to the coalition’s preoccupation with Greenland’s possible secession from the Kingdom of Denmark. The new Naalakkersuisut writes in the first line of its manifesto that “Greenland is irrevocably on the path towards independence, and this process demands not just stability, but also national unity.” At the same time, the independence process has for the first time been made a formal task for the government with the creation of cabinet position that includes an independence portfolio.

The process of drawing up a Greenlandic constitution has also been sped up. “The parties agree to present a draft of a new constitution by the end of this electoral term,” the manifesto states. Or, as Sara Olsvig, the leader of IA (until last week, the main opposition party) who will serve as justice and social affairs minister in the new government, told Information, a Danish news outlet, last week: “Before the end of the current electoral term in 2018 we will finalise the basic skeleton for our future constitution.”

The same process in the Faroe Islands has been a source of conflict between Tórshavn and Copenhagen. Formulating a local constitution of any significance that is not at odds with the basic structure of the kingdom as laid out in the Danish constitution may prove exceptionally difficult.

The new coalition in Nuuk has not set a timeline for the dissolution of its relationship with Denmark, but it wants to assume responsibility for more administrative areas now managed by Copenhagen. For example, it plans to have taken over responsibility for immigration by November 2018.

At the same time, the new government is also looking to work more closely with Copenhagen in a number of areas. One of them is the creation of a joint Danish-Greenlandic development fund that would generate investments in infrastructure. The Danish government has never shown itself to be keen on this idea, but for the first time a formal proposal to establish one will now come directly from Nuuk.

The division of labour in the new cabinet has been carefully considered. Kim Kielsen, the leader of Siumut, remains premier, and members of his party will occupy four cabinet seats.

IA goes from being in opposition to holding four seats in the new cabinet. In addition to Olsvig as justice and social affairs minister, the party will also see Aqqaluaq Egede, its second-in-command, serve as finance minister. For Kielsen, this means now having to work closely with two of his toughest critics.

Partii Naleraq is the coalition’s third member. Its leader, Hans Enoksen, a former premier for Siumut, has been made responsible for fishing and hunting, key economic activities. Especially fishing is an important issue for Enoksen, who has earned a reputation for his tenacity.

The three parties have been able to come together solely because they have agreed to temporarily set aside their difference of opinion about uranium. Olsvig and IA are dead-set against uranium mining. Siumut welcomes uranium mines, provided they don’t damage the environment. Greenland has been evenly split on the issue for the past three years, and discussions about the matter – both among politicians as well as between politicians and voters – have been uncharacteristically acrimonious.

The matter remains unresolved, with the coalition stating only that it is putting the matter aside until one of the foreign firms interested in mining uranium actually applies for permission to do so. While this maneuver papers over an area of disagreement, the coalition may be forced to deal with it rather soon: Greenland Minerals and Energy, an Australian-owned firm, has made it clear that it expects to apply by the end of the year for permission to begin operating a combined rare-earths and uranium mine in southern Greenland.

Writing last week on Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic news outlet owned by Arctic Journal’s parent company, Julie Rademacher, a former advisor to Aleqa Hammond, who served as premier for Siumut from 2013 to 2014, gave a sense of the complexity of the new coalition’s situation. “It’s a coalition that is going to have a tough time when it comes to uranium. It’s a coalition that is going to have enormous potential to push through some necessary reforms and improve the way things are done. It’s going to be a coalition in which all three party leaders will want to dominate, especially the two who aren’t officially in charge.”

The parties have come to a compromise over Thule Airbase, a US military installation in the far north-eastern part of the country. Olsvig and IA have previously argued in favour of a complete renegotiation of the 1951 defence agreement between Denmark and the US, which lays the formal foundation for America’s military presence in Greenland. Such a proposal, however, would be unlikely to go down well in either Washington or Copenhagen, and, instead, the coalition manifesto mentions only “a new round of negotiations” related to US use of the area the base occupies as a way to ensure that Greenland is compensated financially for the use of its territory.

The manifesto remains silent about the so-called Reconciliation Commission, which was seated by Hammond in order to document what happened in the colonial era (to the frustration of many in Denmark). That makes it very uncertain the commission will receive new funding after its mandate expires in 2017. Likewise, its findings may not receive much attention from the new administration.

The recent proposal that English be made the first foreign language in schools, at the expense of Danish, is also absent from the manifesto. The proposal had been put forward by Nivi Olsen, now the former education minister. She proposed that the changeover should take effect at the start of the 2018 school year, but with Olsen’s party now in opposition, the plan appears to have been stopped in its tracks.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist who has written extensively about Arctic issues, including most recently The Greenland Dilemma. He is an occasional contributor to The Arctic Journal.