Monday

25th Jan 2021

Column

The lessons of Grøxit

It is often said that the British were the first to leave the European Union and that the EU, because of its sole experience with, and focus on, integration, is not used to dealing with this kind disintegration at all.

This is, strictly speaking, not true: the Algerians and Greenlanders left the club already long before Brexit came along. Both had become members of the European Communities (EC), the EU's predecessor, as part of their colonial 'motherlands'.

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  • The Greenlandic exit also shows that maybe Europe has more experience with disintegration and disfunctionality than some tend to think

In 1962 and 1985, respectively, they left independently.

Algeria is an atypical case. Initially, Brussels even allowed it to retain its status as a member state - as an outsider. This would be unthinkable today. Later on, the Europeans became more strict and relations with Algiers deteriorated.

'Grøxit', however, is more comparable to Brexit because it went the other way round: after having been strict in the beginning, Brussels was eager to intensify cooperation and show more flexibility afterwards. The Greenlandic exit also shows that maybe Europe has more experience with disintegration and disfunctionality than some tend to think.

Greenland joined the EC in 1973 as a province of Denmark, and against its will.

In the Danish accession referendum, 70 percent of Greenlanders had voted against joining the EU. Greenland may be the biggest island in the world (Australia, which is larger, is considered a 'continent'), but with just 50,000 inhabitants they had little impact on the outcome of the Danish vote.

Denmark's accession led to what is sometimes called 'the Greenlandic Spring'.

For many Greenlanders, who are about 89 percent Inuit, this was a turning point: a moment to distance themselves from Denmark and develop their own political identity.

In 1979, Greenland became independent under the Danish Crown. Soon after that, in 1982, the island organised its own 'Grøxit' referendum. And 52 percent voted to leave the EC – a figure that is identical to the outcome of the Brexit vote in 2016.

At that time Europe was far less integrated than it is now. But the Greenlanders had never liked Copenhagen's control over their fishery policies, and they liked it even less when Copenhagen handed this over to Brussels.

This meant that European fishermen were allowed to fish in Greenlandic waters.

Greenlanders also felt that "our climate standards, culture, ethnicity, social structure, economic and industrial patterns, infrastructure and livelihoods are so different from those in Europe that we can never be equal to European countries and regions".

The other member states were stunned.

Corsica and Sicily next?

They couldn't believe that a country – and a poor country at that - no longer wanted to belong to the club. In addition, France and Italy started to get worried that Greenland's departure could give Corsica and Sicily some ideas.

Greenlandic negotiator Lars Vesterbirk later said that after the referendum he spent a lot of time not negotiating but mainly trying to convince the EU that "of course you can leave – the EU is not a prison."

One day Greenlandic prime minister Jonathan Motzfeldt had a meeting with a senior civil servant in Rome.

Italy did not even want to recognise the referendum result. The discussion went nowhere. Motzfeldt said: "Okay Mr. Fiori, I don't have any more time for you because I have to go and see the Pope." He left and went to the Vatican. It was at that point that Italy understood Grøxit was inevitable.

Because of all these difficulties the negotiations lasted almost three years.

The final result was that Greenland became a European 'overseas territory'. It is outside the internal market and the customs union, but – just like other European non-members such as Norway or Switzerland – it follows many European rules and regulations even if it cannot decide on them.

The EU, meanwhile, keeps its fishing rights for cod and other species in Greenlandic waters, in exchange for European subsidies.

Actually, European fishermen catch very little cod there. But because of Greenland's geopolitical relevance the EU has always continued to pay for what is known in Brussels as Greenlandic 'paper fish'. Between 2014 and 2020 Greenland has received €217m from the European Union.

Obviously, Greenland doesn't have the same significance for the EU as the United Kingdom. And according to Vesterbirk, the Greenlandic negotiator, the EU is far better prepared now than it was then.

But there may also be some parallels. The British want to keep as many rights as possible, without the obligations. But like the Greenlanders, who also tried cherrypicking, they must realise "that the advantages of membership are for members, not for those standing on the outside."

Since 1985 the EU has expanded considerably.

Today, cooperation with Greenland is (exit or not) much more intense than ever before – extending into education, social affairs, housing, environment, and many other fields.

Currently Greenland is trying to get Europe to become more active in the battle with China, Russia and America for hegemony in the Arctic. Some Greenlanders now want to rejoin the EU – again to mark its independence from Denmark.

Clearly, the sharp dividing line that politicians sometimes draw between European integration and full sovereignty does not exist at all.

We see this with Brexit, just as we saw it with Grøxit. And this is only logical. Countries are so interdependent nowadays that an 'exit' can only be about... cooperation: future cooperation, but in some different form.

That is why the British and Europeans will continue to negotiate even in case of a No Deal. If necessary, after 1 January.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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