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24th Jan 2020

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North Atlantic mini states in geopolitical turbulence

  • Thorshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. Denmark's relations to Greenland and the Faroe Islands are entering a new era, amid growing geopolitical interest in the North Atlantic and Arctic. (Photo: Arne List)

When US president Donald Trump offered to buy Greenland in a tweet in August most people in Denmark and Greenland thought it was an April Fool joke at the wrong time of the year.

But half a year later it has become clear that Denmark's relations to Greenland and the Faroe Islands are entering a new era amid growing geopolitical interests in the Arctic area.

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Greenland is strategically important for the US military, as the shortest route from North America to Europe goes via the Arctic island, while the Faroe Islands are at risk of losing trade with China if they do not bow to pressure.

Greenland's prime minister Kim Kielsen and his Danish counterpart, Mette Frederiksen both rejected the offer from Trump to buy Greenland in August.

"Greenland is not for sale", Kielsen said. "But we are open to business", he added.

Trump reacted by cancelling a planned official visit to Copenhagen but he also met Frederiksen as one of a few leaders for bilateral talks during last week's Nato summit.

Microphone mistake

This week another story pointing to the rising geopolitical interests in the North Atlantic and Arctic area broke in Thorshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands.

It appeared that China's ambassador to Denmark, Feng Tie, had told the Faeroe's prime minister, Bárður á Steig Nielsen in a secret meeting on 11 November that a free trade deal would only be possible with the islands if Chinese telecom giant Huawei was chosen for developing a Faeroe's 5G network.

Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende on Tuesday (10 December) reported that the ambassador, Feng Tie, held two secret meetings with Faeroe's ministers on the issue.

The first meeting was with foreign minister Jenis á Rana, and the second one was with prime minister Bárður á Steig Nielsen and finance minister Jørgen Niclasen, who is also responsible for telecommunications.

The secretive meetings have only become known to the public, because a microphone from Faroese broadcaster Kringvarp Føroya was not switched off and accidentally recorded preparations for the talks.

A Faroe Island court last week banned Faroese and Danish media from airing the recording. The ban came just 20 minutes before the Faroese TV station was due to go on air with the story.

The soundbite apparently reveals that the Danish ministry of defence had advised the Faroese government against striking a deal with the Chinese company, despite the choice of a telecoms supplier resting with the Faroe Islands themselves under its home rule agreements with Copenhagen.

"I cannot comment on a sound recording which, according to the Faroese authorities, is recorded without the knowledge of the participants", Danish foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, told Danish broadcaster DR.

The Faorese TV station's lawyer, Jórvan Páll Lasse, maintained however that the Danish foreign ministry had assessed the case and agreed that publication of the information could harm Denmark's relationship with China.

Denmark chose in March to use Swedish Ericsson as a partner for its own new G5 network.

In a recent op-ed published by Faroese newspaper Sosialurin, the US ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands, also warned the Faroe Islands of becoming dependent on Chinese technology.

"I urge the Faroe Islands telecom operators to consider US or European companies for their 5G network and to keep control of that infrastructure", she wrote.

Trumps offer to Greenland and Chinese pressure on the Faroe Islands plays into Denmark's relations with the two North Atlantic countries and plans for their full independence over time.

Greenland and the Faroe Islands are both autonomous, but Danish-dependent territory. They have self-government and their own parliaments, but their foreign and security policy is decided in Copenhagen. They also both elect two members of the Danish parliament.

In Copenhagen the parliamentary parties will discuss the matter on Thursday (12 December) at a meeting in the foreign policy committee. Relations between Greenland and the US will also be scrutinised in a parliamentary hearing on 17 December.

Greenland votes with eye on independence

Six out of seven political parties running in Greenland's parliamentary elections on Tuesday are pro-independence, but they disagree on how fast the last ties to Copenhagen should be cut. Increasing dependence on China could be the consequence.

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