Greenland’s election in late April was largely a vote on independence – a crucial and unifying issue. Whatever the ultimate composition of the ruling coalition, the secession from Denmark seems to be a foregone conclusion. Six out of seven political parties support the idea and they won. A referendum will also offer a thumbs-up. The Greenlandic people have been inspired by Iceland’s example and want to make their home, the largest island in the world, a member of the family of independent nations. Some suggest that independence could be declared by 2021.
Greenland left the EU in 1984 while not leaving the Kingdom of Denmark – an EU member state. This was an unprecedented situation. There was no mechanism in place in those days for pulling out of the bloc but this island did it. This proves that Scotland and Northern Ireland could find a way to remain simultaneously parts of the UK and the EU if they wanted to. There’s no need for hard choices; they could have both.
Greenland was granted home rule in 1979 and self-rule in 2009. Denmark’s constitution recognizes its right to become a sovereign nation but it would then lose the subsidies it receives from Copenhagen, which make up about 60% of the island’s annual budget.
Greenland isn’t green. Roughly 80% of its land is covered by ice, but that percentage is diminishing each year, paving the way for crops and scenery that brings in tourists. Iceland has recently made big strides toward becoming a tourist destination. Greenland could take a page out of its book.
Tourist infrastructure and mining can help bring Greenlanders closer to their goal of becoming a self-sufficient country. Rare-earth elements could turn it into a diplomatic flash point. China’s influence is strong and will probably grow, as Greenland badly needs foreign investment.
But in that case it would have to leave NATO, casting doubt over the fate of the US Air Force base in Thule, which is a component of NORAD and the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. Last year the US completed a significant upgrade of that site. The island is going to leave Denmark and NATO at just about the same time that the US Navy is accelerating its plan to beef up its Arctic capability.
The melting ice offers more than just new economic opportunities. It is also revealing the danger to the environment posed by a US top-secret Cold War military base where toxic agents were stored. The site was abandoned in 1967 under the assumption that it would remain eternally frozen. Now it is rising to the surface as its ice covering melts. This problem is not making the local population more warmly disposed to the US. The idea of the two countries working together militarily is not popular. Former Greenlandic Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq believes that “The American presence has been nothing but trouble, nothing but environmental pollution, and it has created a crisis of trust between Greenland and Denmark.”
Once it loses Greenland, Denmark will no longer be an Arctic state, but China could have a proxy vote in Arctic matters, as Paula Briscoe, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it. As an independent state and a new member of the Arctic Council, Greenland will have to cooperate with Russia, the world leader in icebreaker construction. Moscow can share its wealth of experience finding profit in the region – something Greenland will badly need. The Russian-Chinese relationship is warming up in the Arctic, and Greenland could benefit from that. Once it is independent, it will not have to abide by the sanctions against Russia, thus paving the way for a thriving economic relationship with that country, spurred by the lucrative opportunities that are emerging as the snow continues to melt.
Greenland’s independence will no doubt inspire secessionist movements in Denmark (such as the Faroese independence movement) and across Europe, where aspirations for independence are on the rise. Scotland, Catalonia, Basque, Flanders, Veneto — the list can go on. With the opportunities for economic prosperity about to open up and the relations between the Arctic Five regulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Greenland will not have to choose between the West or the East. It could freely define its own national interests and do the right thing as interpreted in Nuuk, not in the capitals of the NATO member states. Equipped with a reliable base of resources, it could take the best from its Arctic partners, Russia, China, Australia, or anyone with a lucrative deal to offer. Greenland will be able to make its own decisions as to whether it needs other nation’s military bases on its territory that only make it a target in the event of an armed conflict that doesn’t concern Nuuk.
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