China vs. USA in Greenland: The EU needs to step up its engagement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Greenland's landscape. [Damien Degeorges]

US President Donald Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland was primarily treated as a joke. In fact, the US is right to see the strategic importance of Greenland and the Arctic. The EU should be no less serious about this vital geostrategic space, write André Gattolin and Damien Degeorges.

André Gattolin is vice-chair of the French Senate’s European Affairs Committee and the author of three reports dealing with the EU and the Arctic. Damien Degeorges is a Reykjavík-based international consultant specialising in EU-Arctic affairs.

Year after year, the China-US competition in the Arctic becomes more obvious. Greenland and Iceland, geographically at the centre of the transatlantic relation, have emerged as the epicentre of this competition.

US President Donald Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence were supposed to visit Denmark and Iceland respectively in early September, with the Arctic on the agenda.

While Vice President Pence visited Iceland, President Trump abandoned his planned trip to Denmark but instead made the world aware of the United States’ interest in Greenland.

This Arctic signal at the highest level from the United States followed interventions by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier in 2019: he visited Iceland with an Arctic security focus, made a speech in Finland directed towards China’s Arctic involvement, and announced the intention of the United States to reestablish a permanent diplomatic presence in Greenland “as soon as possible”.

The fact that President Trump decided to cancel a state visit to Denmark in early September following nearly a week of intense global coverage concerning a renewed US offer to purchase Greenland could in itself illustrate the importance that the US gives to Greenland. In short, one could easily say that US-Denmark relations, seen from Washington D.C., is first and foremost about Greenland.

From development aid to a strategic engagement

So as Washington focuses on Greenland and the Arctic, is this region high enough on the European agenda?

During this transitional period in the European institutions, the Commission’s European Political Strategy Centre published in July a strategic note focusing on the Arctic.

It calls among other things for the EU “to become more strategic in its approach to the region” and to consider opening a “programme office” or “contact point” in Greenland.

The EU should raise its engagement with Greenland, one of the Overseas Countries and Territories associated to the Union, to a strategic level.

Allocating €217,8 million to Greenland as part of the 2014-2020 Partnership Agreement between the EU and the island is a drop in the Arctic Ocean compared to what the Union could do. As part of the “Act on Greenland Self-Government”, the revenues from mineral resource activities in Greenland are set to lead to a reduction of the annual block grant from the Danish state to the island, which is currently of about €510 million.

If security issues are getting on the way of potential incomes from the mineral resource sector in Greenland, could a reduction of the annual block grant from the Danish state still take place with a higher contribution from the EU in the budget of its Partnership Agreement with Greenland?

Shaping the future of Greenland

Greenland has had a representation office in Brussels since 1992. The EU should have its official representation on the Arctic island, especially with an expected permanent U.S. diplomatic presence there.

We therefore strongly encourage the incoming Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to open an office in the capital city Nuuk. It would be linked to the Commission’s Representation in Denmark. An EU office could be a powerful tool to influence the future in a capital city that within less than 10 years could be home to a majority of the population of Greenland. We strongly encourage in that context this EU presence in Greenland to be established already in 2020.

On a longer-term perspective, such a small investment, financially speaking, could produce a significant effect. Based on the “Capital Strategy for Nuuk”, the capital city of Greenland aims at having 30.000 inhabitants in 2030.

It would lead Nuuk to represent a majority of the population of Greenland which currently has a total of about 56.000 inhabitants – a number which is set to decrease within the next two decades.

As of now, Nuuk has a population of about 18.000 inhabitants, while the municipality to which Nuuk belongs, Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq, has about 23.000 inhabitants.

Such a development would mean more than a shift for Greenland within a decade. Based among other things on the way citizens vote in Nuuk, compared to the rest of Greenland, on Greenland’s relation to Denmark, the European Union should be ready for a close and friendly partnership with Greenland.

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