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28th Feb 2021

Power struggle in Greenland: Three reasons why the EU should care

  • According to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Arctic Council (AMAP), 70% of the Arctic’s contribution to rising sea levels comes from Greenland. (Photo: Visit Greenland)

On Monday (24 April), Greenland’s hard-hitting foreign minister, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, unexpectedly withdrew from Greenland’s cabinet and declared that he will challenge Kim Kielsen, Greenland’s premier, as leader of the self-rule government in Nuuk, the capital.

It is all about more autonomy and eventual independence from Denmark, to which Greenland still belongs.

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It is going to be a nasty fight. Here are three reasons why Europeans should care:

Firstly, Greenland holds vast deposits of minerals of strategic importance to industry. These include some of the largest deposits of rare earth minerals outside China, which controls some 90 percent of the world’s rare earth mineral production.

Already in 2012, Antonio Tajani, the then vice-president of the European Commission, travelled to Nuuk to strike a deal that would keep Greenland’s rare earth minerals out of the hands of the Chinese. In exchange, Greenland got EU support to develop a mining sector.

The mining industry, however, has been hesitant to invest in Greenland with its harsh climate and limited infrastructure. Political instability in Greenland could push mining in Greenland further into the future.

Secondly, Greenland has been sympathetic to the EU’s wish to increase its role in the Arctic.

Greenland withdrew from the EU in 1985, the first nation ever to do so, long before Brexit, but today it enjoys cooperation with the EU over fisheries, which provides substantial revenues and support.

Other Arctic players – Russia and Canada, in particular – have proven far less friendly to the EU’s Arctic plans. Brussels needs to remain a close friend to whomever wins the top job in Nuuk.

Finally, Greenland offers unique opportunities in the field of climate science.

As this week’s report from AMAP, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Arctic Council confirms, 70 percent of the Arctic’s contribution to rising sea levels comes from Greenland.

If the EU is serious about climate science, Greenland is the place to be.

Denmark and Greenland are preparing for a new scientific hub in Greenland. To come out on top, the EU needs to be part of it and able to navigate Greenland’s political elite.

Reshuffling problems

Foreign minister Qujaukitsoq's resignation was triggered by a cabinet reshuffle.

Kielsen, the premier, wanted to relieve Qujaukitsoq of his responsibilities and have him focus on trade and industry.

Feeling demoted, Qujaukitsoq announced his resignation and declared his intent to replace Kielsen at a conference of Siumut, the ruling party, this summer.

The two disagree on how to continue Greenland’s long quest for increased autonomy and eventual independence from the Kingdom of Denmark.

Kim Kielsen has stood by his party’s wish for full independence, but he wants firstly to prioritise education, job-creation and efforts to cure social ills.

Increasing impatience

Others in Greenland, including Qujaukitsoq, have become increasingly impatient with Kielsen’s course.

Qjaukitsoq argues for increased Greenlandic powers over it’s foreign policy, which is controlled to a large degree by Denmark.

He has called for renegotiation of the 1951 agreement between Washington and Denmark that gives the United States the right to operate Thule Air Base in northern Greenland. Last year, without consulting Kielsen, Qujaukitsoq lashed out at an “arrogant” Denmark, unleashing what he described as “75 years of pent up frustration”.

Though he failed in 2014 to be elected to Inatsisartut, the national assembly, Qujaukitsoq became Greenland’s most dynamic cabinet member, attending meetings one week in Anchorage, in Beijing the next, to promote Greenland’s minerals, oil, gas, fish and tourism industry.

The foreign affairs portfolio now passes to Suka K. Frederiksen, Greenland’s minister for independence, a portfolio only invented last year.

Frederiksen has no former experience with foreign affairs.

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