The Week Ahead: A working relationship

The three countries making up the Kingdom of Denmark meet for a civil discussion about their relations. The conversation about Nuuk’s and Tórshavn’s foreign relations might be tetchier.

By Kevin McGwin - June 11, 2018
During their 2016 meeting, Faroese premier Aksel V. Johannesen, Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen and Greenlandic premier Kim Kielsen visited Greenland’s Aappaluttoq ruby mine. (Naalakkersuisut)

When talking about relations amongst the three countries that make up the Kingdom of Denmark, it’s easy to get bogged down in discussions of when or whether Greenland and the Faroe Islands will declare their independence from Denmark.

Given the amount of thinking decision-makers in all three countries put into the matter, it should come as no surprise that it is on the agenda up when the leaders of the three countries get together for their annual summer meeting, known as the Rigsmøde. In official speak, the topic is described in less specific terms, such as ‘the evolving relationship’ between Copenhagen and Nuuk and Tórshavn, but by any other name, the issue is the same.

Still, calling it something else serves several purposes. First, it reduces it to just one of the range of issues the three leaders take up. Second, it reflects the fact that, when the topic does come up, discussions about it are just as likely to center on how far Nuuk and Tórshavn can drift from Copenhagen and still remain in the union, not how quickly they can get out of it.

Instead, it is the more practical issues that tend to dominate the Rigsmøde, being held June 11-12, in the Faroe Islands. “It is here that we talk about how we address the problems that crop up, and how we deepen our collaboration,” said Kim Kielsen, Greenland’s premier, ahead of the meeting.

[Denmark works to keep Greenland and the Faroe Islands from going their separate ways]

For Kielsen, that, for example, meant using last year’s meeting to work out terms of a deal he signed this past January that will see Copenhagen pay to clean up pollution left behind by the U.S. military.

Despite their sometimes strained relations, all three countries place a high value on the meetings, to the point that, in 2015, when elections in Denmark and the Faroe Islands were held around the planned date, it was postponed until new leaders were in place, rather than skipping it entirely. The meeting was eventually held in December.

Even if the Rigsmøde was the sort of gathering that Nuuk and Tórshavn saw little domestic value in, it is likely that they would view them as worthwhile for their potential for talking foreign policy. Copenhagen is responsible for representing the Kingdom of Denmark abroad, and Nuuk and Tórshavn often use the meeting to explain to the Danes where their interests lie.

This year Kielsen has already indicated that he plans to bring up issues like Brexit, and how the European Union’s forthcoming multi-year budget will affect the annual payment Brussels makes to non-EU Greenland in exchange for fishing rights.

He will also ask for an explanation of Copenhagen’s position on foreign investment in Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Danish concerns about Chinese involvement in Greenland’s economy are not new, but they re-emerged earlier this year when a Chinese firm with a tarnished reputation was short-listed to bid on airport construction projects there. Other Greenlandic projects, including investments in mining and a telecommunications upgrade, have raised fewer alarms in Copenhagen, though, and Nuuk will be keen to hear what is sensitive and what is not.

[As Greenland’s plans to build new airports gather momentum, Denmark is struggling to get on board]

Tórshavn may also find itself getting a foreign-affairs talking-to by Copenhagen over its growing economic ties with Moscow. As a non-EU country, the Faroe Islands has been able to sidestep Western sanctions on Russia and Moscow’s counter-sanctions on European food imports. As a result Russia is now its largest trading partner, thanks to imports of salmon.

The relationship may expand further: Tórshavn, it was announced last week, is about to sign a free-trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, a group that includes Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The agreement would be its second (an FTA with Turkey came into effect in 2017), and it might not be its last (deals with Japan and South Korea are said to be in the works).

Such deals,Faroese Foreign Minister Poul Michelsen, told local media, provide the country peace of mind that its trading relations will remain stable. The deal with the former Soviet bloc was particularly important, he said, since it sent a message that sanctions were not cloud the relationship any time soon.

Politically, such deals will at least mean the Rigsmøde will have something else to get bogged down in than independence.

Remembering the big one

A flooded home in Nuugaatsiaq, after a tsunami struck the remote Greenland village. (Palle Lauritsen / Arctic Joint Command)

When Greenland marks the first anniversary of one of the most traumatic natural disasters in the country’s history on June 17, there will be two important perspectives to take.

The immediate focus will be on the individuals who were impacted by the landslide-induced tsunami, primarily from the village of Nuugaatsiaq. Four of the 84 people who lived there at the time were washed out to sea. Survivors have been relocated, mostly to the town of Uummannaq, and are unlikely to return. Instead, newly built permanent housing to the tune or 100 million kroner ($15 million), has been promised, though construction will not be finished until the end of the year.

In addition to the strain of relocation, those affected have also lost most of what they own. Donations helped replace some of what they were forced to leave behind, including hunting rifles. The aim was to help families get back on their feet as quickly as possible. Filling the hole the tsunami left behind will be a far more painstaking process.

[Arctic remains at risk from tsunamis, experts warn]

For those less emotionally attached to the tragedy, its anniversary will provide an opportunity to sum up what has been learned about the landslide and the wave it generated. One detail stands out: the wave reached an estimated height of 90 meters (about 295 feet), double the size of the tsunami triggered by the Fukushima earthquake. Had such a landslide taken place closer to more a populated area, the devastation would have been indescribable.

Could such a landslide occur again, in Greenland or elsewhere? Scientists say yes, on both accounts: More rock may fall from the cliff whose collapse to generated the Nuugaatsiaq tsunami, while other slides could be prompted by factors like changed temperature and precipitation patterns and rising sea-level.

Even before the Nuugaatsiaq tsunami, public authorities in Greenland were taking the threat seriously, but then, as now, their preparations may be as much guesswork as forecasting the next landslide is. Scientists say it could take 10 such incidents before we know enough to prepare adequately.

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please email [email protected].