Greenland’s election a case study in climate change, sovereignty, China, the EU and the Arctic’s future

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It’s home to just 57,000 people, but when Greenland’s voters go to the polls on March 12, they will be choosing a path that could have global implications — for the European Union, the United States and China, and the future of the Arctic as an economically viable region, with climate change opening the far north to further development.greenland flagdenmark flag

The world’s largest island, Greenland is an ‘autonomous country’ within the Kingdom of Denmark, and the Danish have essentially ruled Greenland for centuries.

But that, like many things these days in Greenland, may be changing.

A strategic Arctic holding in a longtime Cold War ally

Denmark’s northern holdings — Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands — were key strategic locations during both World War I and World War II, giving them an outsized importance to the Allied powers in those wars.  During World War II, U.S. and Allied forces used Keflavik airfield outside Reykjavík, in particular, as an important stop between North America and Europe.  Germans attempted to occupy Greenland during World War II after occupying Denmark, but U.S. and Canadian forces protected the island from a full occupation, largely to protect its strategic power to the United States and Greenland’s valuable deposits of cryolite, an aluminum ore that was crucial to the Allied war effort — a hint of the battle shaping up today over Greenland’s mineral wealth.

Although Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1944, Greenland’s status as a Danish possession endured.

As the Cold War began, the U.S. continued to look to Greenland as an incredibly strategic holding — it allegedly offered Denmark $100 million to buy it in 1946 for its strategic use as an early warning station for any potential Soviet missile attacks on the U.S. mainland.

Denmark demurred, and as the Cold War wound down, relented in giving Greenland home rule in 1979 — Greenland’s capital, Godthåb, was renamed Nuuk, and it would now have its own parliament.  Following a widely successful 2008 referendum, Greenland obtained further self-rule capabilities in 2009 — its parliament is now responsible for all but the most high-level foreign policy and defense decisions, and Danish is no longer an official language.  Greenland controls its own security, judiciary, and it’s essentially up to Greenlanders to determine the future of its potential mineral wealth.

As a Danish province, Greenland became a member of what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, but following home rule, Greenland became the first — and so far, only — member to leave the EEC or its predecessor, the European Union in 1985.

Membership was never popular in Greenland, where fishing has traditionally been an incredibly important industry, so Greenlanders have never been enthusiastic about opening up its waters to European-wide competition and, potentially worse, overfishing Greenlandic waters.  Iceland remains a EU holdout for many of the same reasons — despite talks for Icelandic accession to the EU, concessions for fishing rights would likely be a key precondition to any eventual Icelandic membership.

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A geopolitical tussle over the promise of Greenlandic mineral wealth

The longtime suspicion of EU exploitation of Greenland’s economy is at the heart of the most recent war of words between Nuuk and Brussels — in advance of elections, Greenland’s prime minister Kuupik Kleist (pictured above) this week sent a warning to the European Commission that Greenland is looking not just to Europe, but to China as well, in the bid to open up the Arctic north’s mineral riches.

Kleist, one of Greenland’s most renowned musician, leads the Inuit Ataqatigiit (‘Community of the People’), a socialist and stridently pro-independence party that won election in 2009 after 30 years in opposition — just in time, perhaps ironically, to oversee the most rapid market-based transformation of Greenland in its history.

With the advent of global warming (here’s a clip of Kleist explaining climate change’s effect on his country), Greenland’s transforming into a more hospitable place — more moderate climates and melting ice means that it’s never been easier for mining companies to explore and extract the minerals buried deep under Greenland — government permits for exploration have skyrocketed from about 10 a decade ago to 150 today.

One gold mine is currently operating in Greenland, and mining companies are hopeful that more gold can be extracted as well as iron, zinc and other metals.

Although oil companies hope that Greenland also has hidden oil reserves both on land and underwater, they’ve spent $1 billion in the past year for offshore exploration.  According to Charles Emmerson’s thoughtful 2010 book on Arctic history and policy, The Future History of the Arctic, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 31.4 barrels of oil and oil equivalents, including 8.9 billion barrels of oil exist off the coast of northeastern Greenland, and another 7.3 billion barrels in west Greenland.  No one knows for sure, though Greenland has established its own national oil company, Nunaoil, to pioneer those efforts.

At issue are not only the potential for offshore or onshore oil deposits, gold mining, but also proven deposits of the 17 ‘rare-earth’ elements that are increasingly crucial to China, the United States and Europe in industry.  China has, in the short-term at least, strategically cornered the market for rare-earth elements, but even China’s deposits won’t be able to keep up with long-run Chinese demand, to say nothing of global demand.

Finally, Greenland is weighing whether to lift its long-term ban on uranium mining, despite the fact that the world’s fifth-largest uranium deposit is located in Kvanefjeld in south Greenland.

The European Union is keen on obtaining a share of the Greenlandic wealth, but China has also been aggressive in its new-found ardor for Nuuk as well.

Last year, Greenland signed a memorandum of understanding with the EU that contemplated €25 million ($32.5 million) in support for further exploration, though Kleist is demanding concrete action.  Also last year, Hu Jintao, the Chinese premier at the time, made a three-day visit to Denmark, a country of 5.58 million people (in contrast, the People’s Republic of China has a population around 240 times larger).  It seemed pretty clear that Hu’s interest in Denmark had less to do with Denmark proper than with Greenland.

A referendum on Greenland’s future

The election has taken on somewhat of the nature of a referendum on the nature and pace of Greenland’s future development — and, in particular, on the large-scale development law recently passed by Greenland’s parliament that would liberalize the path of not only foreign development, but also facilitate the importation of foreign workers to Greenland as well.

In brief, any foreign project larger than 5 billion Danish kroner (around $900 million) would require a license from the Greenlandic government, which would include an environmental and social impact inquiry.  The license, however, would allow the project to utilize foreign labor in the development of the project.

On the one hand, Greenlanders know that their thawing natural resources could be a path toward self-sustaining nationhood, and perhaps independence.

On the other hand, environmentalists worry about the damage that’s being done to Greenland, not only through the potential mining, oil extraction, and other economic activity, but due to the underlying climate change — even as global warming has made Greenland’s fishing industry even more dangerous by melting longtime ice flows and forcing fishing stocks further north in search of colder waters.  Anti-nuclear activists are likewise aghast that Greenland might lift its ban on uranium mining as well.

There’s also a cultural component — in a country of just 57,000, Greenlanders are wary of their country being overrun with thousands of even temporary Chinese laborers.

As you might expect from Danish or Icelandic politics, there’s a broad constellation of parties along not only the left/right spectrum, but also on the pro-independence/pro-Danish spectrum as well.

Greenland’s parliament contains just 31 members, so 16 are required for a majority, though no party has ever won enough for an outright majority.

With five main parties, however, winning an absolute majority is difficult, though the current ruling Inuit Ataqatigiit came close.  It won 14 seats — more than any other party has won in a past election — after taking 43.7% of the vote in 2009.

Inuit Ataqatigiit governs in coalition with two smaller parties, the Demokraatit (Democrats), a liberal party that’s most skeptical of independence and draws many of Greenland’s ethnic Danish voters.  The Democrats, with four seats, currently have the third-largest number of seats in Greenland’s parliament (12.7% of the vote in 2009).  The coalition includes one additional MP from Kattusseqatigiit (‘Association of Candidates’), a small center-right independent group founded only in 2005, which won just 3.8% in 2009.

Kleist’s chief opposition is Siumut (Forward), a more moderately leftist, social democratic party that dominated Greenlandic government in its first 30 years until Inuit Ataqatigiit‘s breakthrough in 2009.

Siumut‘s longtime leader Jonathan Motzfeldt — Greenland’s prime minister from 1979 to 1991 and again from 1997 to 2002 — lost his seat and resigned the leadership in that election, despite the fact that, more than anyone, he was responsible for Greenlandic home rule as one of the leaders of the Sujumut movement against Danish colonialism in the 1970s and a founding father with respect Greenland’s current sovereignty.

Although Motzfeldt died in 2010, the party hopes to make a comeback next week under the more feisty, populist leadership of Aleqa Hammond, who is leading the anti-Chinese sentiment by calling for a repeal of a law liberalizing the migration of temporary labor to Greenland.  Despite setbacks in the past two elections, it still holds nine seats in the current parliament and won 26.5% of the vote in 2009.

In contrast, Kleist has struck a more conciliatory tone:

“There is a growing nationalist backlash. It’s not a nice thing to see,” Kleist said. “The fear of being overrun by foreigners is exaggerated. We are becoming a global player. We need to avoid ethnicity, nationalistic feelings.”

Polls are rather inconclusive with less than a week to go until voting — some show that Kleist and his supporters will win 40% or more the upcoming election, enough to secure reelection and a more rapid path to Greenland’s exploration — and potentially, its independence.  Other polls show Hammond and her revamped Siumut tied or closely behind.

Greenland’s other major party, Atassut (Solidarity, or ‘Feeling of Community’) is a center-right, classically liberal party, that won 10.9% in 2009 and holds three seats — though in the 1980s it was the primary opposition party to Siumut, it has since held an increasingly smaller voice in Greenlandic politics.

In addition, a new party, Partii Inuit, has emerged this year from former members of Inuit Ataqatigiit to call for a referendum on the new law prior to its enactment.

Toward a Danish-Greenlandic rupture?

After the election, attention will turn to Copenhagen, which will have some role to play in the battle ahead.

For now, Greenland’s head of state remains the Danish queen, Margrethe II, and Denmark provides to Greenland an annual subsidy of over 3.4 billion Danish kroner (around $592 million), representing up to 30% or 40% of Greenlandic GDP.  If and when Greenland develops additional revenue from natural resources, however, the Danish subsidy is scheduled to decrease in a corresponding amount.

As Denmark also retains control over large-scale foreign policy and immigration matters, the Folketinget, Denmark’s parliament, will have the final say on the new large-scale development law.  Greenland holds two seats in the 179-member Folketinget, one each belonging to the governing Inuit Ataqatigiit and the opposition Siumut.

That has Kleist talking about independence in very serious terms, though that’s still some ways off.

As Emmerson writes:

Some argue that Greenland’s government does not know what it is getting itself into.  They fear that Greenland’s political system will be swamped by the sheer scale of investment, that its government will be taken over by special interests, that the country will replace dependence on Denmark with dependence on multinational corporations, and that Greenland’s cultural traditions will be lost in the headlong rush for economic self-sufficiency.  Above all is the fear that the influx of large numbers of foreign workers will irrevocable change Greenland’s society…

Ultimately, the crux of the matter is simple: Winning the relative freedom of self-rule is one thing, but turning autonomy into independence will be problematic.  The constitutional bargain that came into effect [in 2009] is an experiment.  The emergence of the world’s first truly Arctic state is not a foregone conclusion.

If successful, the transformation would be extraordinary — turning Greenland from a colony with a single lifeline to the outside world, dependent on financial support from Denmark, into an open and wealthy internationalized economy within a generation.

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