U.S. Interests in Greenland - On a Path Towards Full Independence?

by Kathrin Keil June 21st 2011 marked the two year anniversary of the Greenlandic self-rule government and i
t now appears that complete autonomy might not be too far off. After having been a Danish colony for most of the 19th century, Greenland became part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953. 

In 1979, Greenlanders achieved a major breakthrough in terms of indigenous self-government with the creation of the Home Rule Government, meaning that Greenland administers matters relevant to its own domestic order. 

This autonomy has been expanded with Greenland obtaining self-rule in 2009 with responsibility for judicial affairs, policing and its natural resources. Greenlanders were also recognized as an independent people under international law and Greenlandic became the sole official language. Denmark, however, retains control of foreign affairs and defense matters.

The possibility to gain gull independence from Denmark is closely tied to the possibility to achieve financial autonomy, i.e. to reduce the annual grant from Copenhagen to zero by raising enough own Greenlandic revenues. The natural resource sector including mineral resources, fish and marine mammals, hydropower, and especially oil and gas offer the best prospect for raising revenues in the future. Thus, the recently published Danish Arctic Strategy puts a strong emphasis on Greenlandic economic independence, thereby prioritizing development over environmental concerns, which has been criticized by environmental groups.

Greenland seems to have found a strong helping hand on its way to autonomy. According to Wikileaks, the U.S. appears to be highly interested in investing in the resource base of the country and in tapping the vast expected hydrocarbons off the Greenlandic coast. One cable reads that: 

“Greenland is on a clear track toward independence, which could come more quickly than most outside the Kingdom of Denmark realize. […] With Greenlandic independence glinting on the horizon, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to shape the circumstances in which an independent nation may emerge. We have real security and growing economic interests in Greenland. […] American commercial investments, our continuing strategic military presence, and new high-level scientific and political interest in Greenland argue for establishing a small and seasonal American Presence Post in Greenland's capital as soon as practicable.”

Next to securing a bigger US presence in Greenland, the US seems also eager to establish itself as the primary partner of Greenland concerning economic and resource cooperation, joint scientific projects, as well as visitor invitations and English teaching programs: “Our intensified outreach to the Greenlanders will encourage them to resist any false choice between the United States and Europe. It will also strengthen our relationship with Greenland vis-a-vis the Chinese, who have shown increasing interest in Greenland's natural resource.”

Indeed, according to some Greenlandic independence might only be 10 to 20 years away. However, others are more skeptical. First, Copenhagen continues to send a significant annual grant 
to Nuuk every year. In 2010, financial transfers from Copenhagen accounted for about one-third of the Greenlandic budget, around 3.5 billion Danish kroner (ca. € 470 million) or € 8,300 per person. 

Second, Greenland lacks full-fledged governmental institutions and political capacity to act internally and externally. Progress in this area will not be possible without external support. Further difficulties include lack of spending on social security and education, high levels of domestic violence, record levels of suicides, unemployment, development of new and expulsion of old industries, loss of traditional ways of life through large influx of foreign workers, and continued support of remote settlements.

Third, Greenland is developing closer ties with the EU again. While the withdrawal from the EU in 1985 has been explained as rearing up against the forced accession to the European Community in 1973 by Danish colonial foreign rule, Greenlanders have become more positive towards the Union. Political ties to the EU allow Greenland to develop own foreign relations distinct from Denmark. Also, financial transfers from Brussels contribute substantially to the Greenlandic budget, and cooperation agreements span across a wide range of issue areas, such as fishing, education, environment, and sustainable development.

Lastly, Denmark will watch the development in Greenland carefully, given that with Greenlandic independence Denmark would cease to be an Arctic state. The same holds for the European Union, given the combination of Greenland’s strategic meaning – no other land mass is closer to the North Pole than Greenland – and the development of an stand-alone EU-Arctic policy. Consequently, Denmark and the EU have an interest in becoming essential partners for Greenland.