Arctic expert: Greenland could re-join the EU in a generation

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Greenland joined the European Economic Community with Denmark in 1973 but left in 1985 due to quarrels over commercial fishing regulations. With Greenland facing new export potential and possible independence from Denmark, the EU must play a pragmatic and constructive role to secure the island’s development, Damien Degeorges says in an interview with EURACTIV.

Dr Damien Degeorges is associated researcher at the University of Greenland and the author of 'The Role of Greenland in the Arctic'. Based in Brussels, he visited Greenland for the first time in 1998 and is a former free-lance foreign correspondent for the Greenlandic newspaper ‘AG/Grønlandsposten’. Fluent in Danish, he has worked with Greenland and Arctic issues for 10 years, notably during the 2008 French EU presidency. 

?Degeorges spoke to EURACTIV's Henriette Jacobsen.

Greenland has had visits from some of the most important heads of states in the world in the past few months, including Commission President José Manuel Barroso and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What is it they want in Greenland?

Greenland is definitely interesting and will continue to be so in the future basically because Greenland has everything to attract everybody. Greenland has natural resources, huge potential of oil, gas and minerals; especially rare earth elements. Greenland also has about 10% of the world’s freshwater reserve.

Greenland through its icecap is also a climate laboratory and by that represents a key tool for international cooperation within climate and polar research. On Greenland’s icecap as well as in Antarctica, you get the best data to analyse the climate and then adapt to sea level rise.

Therefore, it is a win-win situation to further engage nations with large CO2 emissions like China or India into more international climate cooperation in the Arctic. Greenland has a key role to play in that.

Greenland’s value has also risen tremendously in the past few years, as home rule was introduced in Greenland in 1979 and the territory took over the management of its natural resources in 2010.

As Greenland moves towards possible independence and is located at the centre of this new frontier of international relations, it is not a surprise that major powers look at this territory with so many strategic assets. The Arctic is not a remote area: it is the new meeting place of the US, Russia, the EU, China and many others. That gives even more value to Greenland.

You mentioned a huge potential of oil, gas and minerals in Greenland. What are the challenges?

Oil and gas have not yet been found in a commercially viable amount to be sure that it can provide sufficient incomes that could enable economic independence for Greenland.

When some argue that such incomes could secure the budget of a small society like the Greenlandic one for the next 20 years, then what about incomes on the 21st year? Independence plans will need to rely on more diverse sources of incomes, but not only: education is key for Greenland’s future as well as a change in mentalities.

The environmental risk is there too. Greenland is well aware of that, but few may realise how devastating the picture of an iceberg surrounded by oil on the front page of major international media would be for Greenland, its independence plans and ‘green’ branding.

Even in the case of a limited oil spill, therefore, Greenland should never compromise on the safety of such drillings. If Greenland succeeds, however, to invest potential incomes from hydrocarbon activities into sustainable development, bringing Greenland to become a low-carbon society in the long term, it may have been worth it.

However, mining appears to be more promising for Greenland, especially when it comes to rare earth elements. In a situation where China has a near monopoly on the world production of rare earth elements, Greenland has the potential to break this situation and therefore has become more than valuable not only for the European industry, but also for China and others.

New issues like uranium – if the current zero tolerance policy on extracting radioactive elements is to change in Greenland – may, however, challenge Greenland’s strength and ability to handle so many important investments at a time.

It may also challenge the good Danish-Greenlandic relationship, hopefully in a way that would bring Denmark and Greenland to work closer in a win-win situation: uranium is not only about natural resources (an area that is under the responsibility of Greenland), it has a lot to do with security issues that Denmark is still in charge of.

How do you assess the ability of a small country like Greenland to negotiate with international superpowers?

Greenland is as large as four times the size of France with a population of less than 57,000 persons. In other words, there are few people to run such a territory made of so many strategic assets. Education is a key issue for Greenland’s development, not only in order to educate the required elite but also because “soft power” can play a significant role in the choices this future elite will [make] regarding Greenland’s foreign relations.

What is important to understand when we talk about Greenland, and I think only a few have it in mind, is that there are only 44 persons who politically govern Greenland. There are currently 9 ministers, 31 MPs and 4 mayors. You therefore only need to lobby about 25 persons to have access to Greenland’s strategic assets – which is nothing for major companies or states.

The future elite needs to learn much more about international relations, so that they will know how to play their cards in world affairs. Sometimes the political debate in Greenland can be very far from looking at the international dimension and potential consequences of investments in Greenland.

It would benefit Greenland and Denmark to avoid looking to the past and instead look forward, cooperating even more on issues such as the Arctic and exchanging more regularly on world affairs, particularly when it comes to raw materials and major powers.

Greenland would gain from Denmark’s international experience while Denmark would perhaps feel more confident when talking Arctic issues with foreign delegations, as Denmark is only Arctic through Greenland.

Talking about natural resources, Greenland should also been looking much more at others countries and their way to deal with such issues. Australia is an interesting example: it is an experienced mining country that is closely linked, both economically and regionally, to China.

It would be good for Greenland to further look at Australia and see how they handle China in the strategic rare-earth sector. Also because plenty of Australian mining companies are investing in Greenland.

What do you think will be the EU’s role in this?

If you look at the EU as it is today, then the EU’s role in the Arctic is clear: the most important thing is to secure the development in Greenland. It’s a pragmatic and constructive role that the EU can have in the future. EU definitely has a role to play in securing a safe independence for Greenland.

The EU should keep supporting the educational system and cooperate with Greenland. Some might say it would be difficult to get Greenland as an EU member because Greenland was a member of the European Common Community, but left in 1985. I think the generation born after 1985 will be more pragmatic.

Once the economic ‘safety net’ – which is provided by the Danish state so far as Greenland is an autonomous territory – will be removed, Greenland would in its own interest have to get ‘insurance’, given its so many strategic assets and also as it is a central actor of the Arctic region.

That could be by rejoining a partly supranational entity, either in America or in Europe. As of today, there is no equivalent to the European Union in North America, but who knows also how the EU will look like when and if Greenland becomes formally independent.

Back in 1985, Greenland left the European Common Community because they didn’t want the Community to determine Greenland’s fishing quotas. Now it seems Greenland won’t really be depending on fishing in the future. How do you think this could play a part?

Of course fishing would be a crucial question perhaps a bit less than today given the expected rise of the energy sector in the Greenlandic economy. You see it today with Iceland. Iceland also plays an important role for Greenland’s future. If Iceland joins the EU, then Greenland’s road to the EU would also be shorter.

However, Greenlanders would also have to feel that they are not just being told what to do by the EU. They have gained more confidence and they will only gain more. It’s also a question for the EU not to repeat the same mistakes or misunderstandings. I think they have corrected their mistakes so the relationship right now between Greenland and the EU is good.

Given its strategic assets, a Greenlandic state would have to secure its development in the long term, avoiding the consequences of potential economic difficulties. Perhaps it should become a part of a supranational cooperation like the EU if becoming independent. It could give Greenland an economic safety net.

A major issue is to know how independent Greenland would like to be. Full independence – meaning that Greenland won’t have to rely on someone else – will be impossible as Greenland won’t be able to have its own armed forces. We see the same thing with a much smaller and more inhabited country like Iceland.

Greenland will, however, broadly look like an independent state once it will have taken over all the areas of responsibility transferable through the Self Rule Act. One of the key issues is also to allow time for Greenland’s state-building and avoid a fast and populist way that would be a disaster for Greenland, as the territory wouldn’t be strong enough to face the challenges of being a state.

Greenland used to be a colony, and now they are close to getting independence, but perhaps the Greenlanders are also afraid of loosing that independence again this time to big corporations. How do the Greenlanders view themselves?

The challenge for Greenland is to avoid having an independence plan mainly based on a one-source income. They have to consider the consequences of being an independent state facing economic difficulties. Most Greenlanders would not be ready to face a crisis like Iceland did.

Greenland has exciting challenges ahead, but needs responsible people to govern. The current premier has the required experience when it notably comes to international relations.

There is a good Danish-speaking Greenlandic elite which should not be disqualified because they don’t speak Greenlandic. Two Greenlandic ministers are Danish speakers and are among the best to represent Greenland abroad. Greenland will need everyone if it aims to become independent.

And still, as many Greenlanders and Danes have family links, the relationship between Denmark and Greenland may continue after a formal independence of Greenland, even symbolically through a common monarchy.

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