The Washington Diplomat / June 2009
By Larry Luxner
On June 21, the world's largest island will take a dramatic step along the road toward independence.
Greenland, an enormous chunk of permafrost located mostly above the Arctic Circle, is finally being granted "self-rule" by Denmark. That follows the results of a referendum last November in which Greenlanders overwhelmingly voted to assert more control over their own affairs — as well as the vast mineral and petroleum resources believed to be lurking under the Arctic ice.
"This is a big deal for Greenland," said the country's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Inuuteq Holm Olsen. "It's like our Fourth of July. People are very excited."
Mikaela Engell, chief adviser of Greenland issues for the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, put it another way.
"Self-rule can be seen as a revision of the home rule act which just turned 30 the other day," she told The Diplomat by phone from Copenhagen. "In a silly analogy, it would be very much like teenage kids looking towards the day when they can leave home."
In Greenland's case, that day has been a long time coming.
Discovered by Viking warriors a thousand years ago and colonized by the Danes in 1776, Greenland was transformed into an overseas county of Denmark in 1953. Twenty-six years later, it was granted home rule, and in 1985 Greenland became the only territory to leave the European Union, which it had joined as a part of the Danish Kingdom in 1973.
On Nov. 25, 2008, fireworks burst over the capital city of Nuuk after the self-rule option won, with 75 percent of the vote. Prime Minister Hans Enoksen said the referendum would end more than three centuries without sovereignty and give Greenland's indigenous Inuit population a voice on the world stage for the first time in history.
Later this month, Queen Margrethe II will fly to Nuuk to sign the declaration of self-rule before Greenland's Parliament. The official ceremony takes place June 21, Greenland's National Day.
"This is an issue of principle for us, and has been since home rule was introduced 30 years ago," said Olsen, who has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, as well as a master's in international affairs from George Washington University. "It's very much ingrained in how we view the world, that it should be us who owns the resources. It's our country."
Indeed, if it were independent, Greenland would be the 13th-largest nation in the world, slightly smaller than Congo and a tad larger than Saudi Arabia. Yet Greenland — 50 times the size of Denmark — rarely makes world headlines.
That's because the remote territory is, except for uninhabited Antarctica, the loneliest place on Earth. Within its 840,000 square miles live only 57,000 people — slightly less than the population of Rockville, Maryland. That puts Greenland dead last in a United Nations ranking of the world's 238 countries and territories by population density.
More than two-thirds of all Greenlanders reside in Nuuk and three other major towns. The rest inhabit tiny villages up and down the coasts. There are no roads between settlements in Greenland; you can only travel from one to another by boat or plane.
The country is exhorbitantly expensive for both tourists and locals, says Engell, who spent 25 years there.
"A labor leader famously said a few years ago that he'd rather crap in a bucket than be dependent on Denmark," she quipped. "But that implies that you have a flushing toilet."
At present, Greenland receives 3.2 billion Danish kroners (about $540 million) per year in subsidies, about 60 percent of the island's total budget. That translates into roughly $10,000 for every man, woman and child in Greenland — enough to buy plenty of toilets.
These generous Danish subsidies, combined with income earned from the island's only real industry, fishing, have given Greenlanders a per-capita income equivalent to that of France. On the other hand, infrastructure is poor, unemployment is high and social ills ranging from alcoholism to suicide are on the rise.
"Denmark has an interest in us taking over our responsibilities," said Olsen. "Under the new arrangement, we will get all the income from our natural resources, but at the same time, our subsidies will be reduced [for every two Danish kroner Greenland earns, Copenhagen will cut its subsidies by one kroner]. That way, we won't be a financial burden for Denmark."
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 25 percent of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbons are located in the Arctic.
"A major portion of that is located around Greenland," said Engell. "Greenland is also rich in mineral resources, but it's very difficult to exploit those."
However, with global warming, Greenlanders hope the opening of Arctic sea lanes will make those resources more accessible.
"With the new intense focus on Arctic issues, Greenland will have a new geopolitical position," she said. "The northern sea routes going over the top of the world are enormously interesting to shipping, because they cut off a lot of time."
In addition, said Engell, "climate change is taking place much faster than anybody had expected. It is a regional problem with global implications. But the Arctic — where it is felt sooner and with more force — is the canary in the coal mine."
To that end, Denmark and Greenland will jointly establish a small university in Nuuk later this year to study the effects of global warming on local flora and fauna.
Greenland is also strategic from a political point of view, she told the Diplomat.
"During World War II, Greenland was a stepping stone for the U.S. military, and during the Cold War, it was extremely important because of its location between the United States and the Soviet Union," Engell explained. "Today, there is an American air base up at Thule, which is part of the missile defense system."
As part of the deal that takes effect June 21, Greenland will take control over its own justice and police affairs, and it'll be able to join international organizations in its own right, though Denmark will still oversee foreign policy. The population will also be granted international legal status as an independent people, with the local Inuit dialect becoming the island's official language rather than Danish.
To be sure, not everybody in Denmark is thrilled with this turn of events. One right-wing populist movement, the Danish People's Party, vigorously opposed the referendum — especially the clause that gives Greenland the right to exploit its own hydrocarbon resources.
"But they're a minority," Engell was quick to point out. "The general position was that if Greenland is to remain part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it has to be because they want to. And if they don't want to, they're free to leave."
That nonchalant attitude strikes some foreigners as overly generous, to the point of being just plain stupid.
"During the referendum last year, the Russian media asked our colleagues in Moscow if Denmark had lost its mind," she admitted. "Why would we give up such a large territory, they asked us. The answer is that while it's in Denmark's interest to be part of the Arctic, those kinds of interests are overshadowed by the nature of the relationship between Denmark and its North Atlantic entities. They're at liberty to choose the path they want."
At this point, however, independence is not an option for Greenland, she said.
"Greenland, like the rest of the Nordic countries, is a welfare society with high taxes and an extensive public sector that takes care of everything from health-care to education," Engell said. "If you were to take away that 60 percent, it would mean a big drop in the standard of living."
One area Greenland hasn't really exploited is tourism.
"Greenland has to be the most beautiful country in the world," she said. "After 9/11, a lot of people thought there'd be a steep rise in tourism, because people were expected to seek out peaceful destinations. But it hasn't really turned out that way. One of our biggest problems is that Greenland is tremendously expensive. And air transport is set up to serve a population of only 57,000 people, so there's no real competition."
This is also why Air Greenland recently discontinued a direct route from Baltimore — the first commercial airlink ever between the United States and Greenland — after barely two years in operation. There was simply not enough demand.
On the other hand, Engell says there's been a sharp increase in cruise-ship tourism, particularly among European and American passengers.
Asked if political independence for Greenland is his eventual objective rather than an abstract concept, Olsen — who was scheduled to visit Washington in late May to publicize the cause of self-rule — answered carefully.
"That's our long-term goal for sure. But at the same time, our people don't want to lower their living standards," he said. "We have to develop our economy and industries so that we won't need any financial compensation from Denmark. That will be the key in years to come."