25th Mar 2018


Greenland prepares for Brexit - and possible independence

  • The Inuit village of Itilleq, in the south-west of Greenland. The consequences of climate change are 'not distributed in an even fashion (Photo: David Stanley)

Greenland is trying to adapt its economy and society to Brexit, climate change and possible independence from Denmark, one of its ministers told EUobserver.

"There will be a new way of more direct relations with potential partners and this also goes for the EU in the future," fisheries and hunting minister Karl-Kristian Kruse said in an interview.

  • Kruse: 'the people will have the ultimate say' on the independence of Greenland (Photo: Eric Maurice)

He said several ministers have made trips recently, including to China, "to seek foreign partners including investment partners".

Greenland is an 'autonomous constituent country' within the kingdom of Denmark, but has not been part of the EU since 1985, after a local referendum three years earlier.

Greenland's parliament recently adopted projects for three airports, and the main shipping company, Royal Arctic Line, has made agreements in order "to have a more global network".

The objective, Kruse said, is that Greenland "can have more direct access and trade with other countries", avoiding that "all products and commodities come through Denmark".

But the minister said that the search for economic partners was done in a "cautious manner".

"It's not just a question of trying to get as much funding and investment, it has to be done in a way where we understand each other," he said.

"There has to be a certain understanding on common principles or ways to work."

In recent years, Greenland has been coveted for its minerals, and the ruling Social Democrat Siumut party has often been considered as pro-mining, especially in the uranium sector.

Kruse also noted that Greenland was "positioning itself as a player" in the Arctic, a region where Nordic countries, as well as Canada, Russia but also Asian countries are trying to increase their presence and influence.

Kruse was in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday (29-30 November) to present a 'QR code' (the matrix readable bar code on products) that is designed to facilitate the sales of seal skins in the EU.

Seal skins - Inuit exception

Seal skins are Greenland's second-biggest export behind fisheries, and trading them "means a lot to small communities", which depend on these revenues, the minister explained.

Seal products were banned in the EU in 2010. But in 2015, the EU recognised that the "seal hunt is part of the socio-economy, culture and identity of the Inuit and other indigenous communities and [that] it contributes greatly to their subsistence and development".

It was granted an "Inuit exception" that allowed again the sale of seal products in the EU.

Some 34,000 skins were sold last year, compared to 160,000 before the ban.

"For the 2,100 professional hunters in Greenland, the income from the seal hunt is vital," according to a Greenland government document.

The official paper explains that "the income from the seal hunt serves as a subsistence supplement to the barter economy still existing in small communities dispersed in Greenland".

"Talks on seals have been going on for the last couple of years, and it's clear on this trip that there is an increased understanding over what we want to do," Kruse said, adding that he believed that "the European Commission can set [the scheme] in motion" soon.

He said that the QR code was "a new way to get information out about the hunt and the sustainability of Inuit hunt."

'We need to talk to the UK'

But relations between Greenland and the EU are still focused in fisheries, with negotiations currently under way.

"The EU has allocated quotas for Greenland fisheries zones and Greenland gets a financial compensation for that every year," Kruse explained.

Under the current agreement, which runs until 2020, EU fishermen can capture species like capelin, halibut, cod or prawns, and the EU pays €16 million.

Greenland, which the EU considers as an 'overseas country and territory', is able to export without tariffs to the UK.

"Trade with the UK is the most important elements in our fisheries policy," Kruse said.

He added that "Brexit will have consequences on what we talk about within the fisheries agreement - how do we handle the changes within the EU".

"We'll have to talk about whether or not some of these quotas [for EU fishermen] will go back to Greenland's fishermen or to EU fishermen," he said.

He also noted that some fish species, like mackerel and herring, are seasonal and come to Greenland, "in some cases from UK waters".

"It [then] becomes a question between Greenland and the UK," he said.

He admitted that contrary to Iceland or the Faroe Islands - the second 'autonomous constituent country' within the kingdom of Denmark - Greenland has not started initial talks ahead of Brexit.

"We need to talk to the UK," he said.


Greenland is also thinking over its own future, within or outside Denmark, and in relation to the EU.

Since 2009, Greenland has been ruled under a self-government act agreed with the Danish government, which recognises its right to independence.

In April this year, the autonomous government set up a seven-member constitutional commission tasked with drafting proposals to declare independence and establish a new state.

It is due to hand over its draft within two years, but "it might take a bit longer," Kruse noted. "The government will wait for a formal request from the commission if they need more time."

The minister said that any independence process "will go according to the self-government act," and that "the people will have the ultimate say".

The act says that the "decision regarding Greenland's independence shall be taken by the people of Greenland" and that the process has to be agreed by Greenland's government and parliament and the Danish parliament.

Kruse said that Greenland's economic projects were agreed with Copenhagen.

"There is a recognition from Denmark that Greenland has this right to, and to some extent must, pursue this path if one is to develop towards independence or at least a stronger self-sustainable economy," he said.

"Our biggest inspiration is Iceland," he said. "They had their constitutional process, and our [constitutional] commission has been to Iceland for an inspirational trip".

Greenland will open a representation in Reykjavik next year, similar to the one it has in Brussels next door to Denmark's representation to the EU.

Asked what he thought about Catalonia, a region were the government has tried to break away from an EU country, he said that his government "has not interfered on Catalonia".

But he added: "We are free and open to cooperation with all other peoples who are willing to cooperate in a constructive and open manner."

If Greenland became independent, Kruse said, the decision on whether to ask to join the EU would be made "at that time".

A report is forthcoming about how to increase cooperation with the EU, and in which areas was recently presented to the parliament, and "this is what we are working on now," he said.

"It's not so much a question of 'membership' or 'not right now...'," he added, putting the emphasis more on the ongoing cooperation.

He insisted that "this is ultimately a decision for the people of Greenland. If anything has to change fundamentally on the relation with the EU, the people has to be asked".

'Less optimistic' on climate change

The thinking over the political and institutional future of Greenland goes on, as the face of the country itself is changing with climate change.

"Climate change has not so good consequences - and some that are not so bad," Kruse observed.

"In some regions, the old lifestyle needs to change. New opportunities emerge, but not always in the same regions," he said.

"Regions in the north and north-west are hit hard. The ice is getting thinner and you can no longer travel safely on it, then it becomes difficult to hunt and fish," said Kruse - himself a former fisherman.

Meanwhile, "in the south and in the east, you see new fish species coming to our waters and new income [sources] presenting themselves".

"For the country as a whole, it looks as the negative consequences are almost compensated by positive consequences. But regionally that is not distributed in an even fashion," he said.

"[The] experience for Greenlanders is that climate change goes up and down," he said.

"But we also know that changes are happening quite rapidly and severely. Knowing the effect CO2 has, we are a little less optimistic."

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