The Big Question: Is Greenland ready for independence, and what would it mean for its people?

Andy McSmith
Thursday 27 November 2008 01:00 GMT
(Independent Graphics)

Why are we asking this now?

The people of Greenland went to the polls this week and voted 3-1 in favour of a plan for greater self-government. The rules under which oil revenues are split between Greenland and Denmark are to be revised in Greenland's favour, with the first 75 million kroner (£8.5m) going to Greenland, and the rest split half and half. In return the island will take over responsibility for its own police force, courts and coastguard. Eventually, the annual subsidy from Denmark – currently around 3.5 billion kroner (£400 million) – will be phased out. Danish will also be replaced by Greenlandic as the island's official language. The vote is seen as a major step towards independence for Greenland.

What would an independent Greenland be like?

On its own, Greenland would be the 13th largest country in the world, in area, but in terms of population, it would not even make the top 200. Measuring 836,109 square miles, it is by a long way the world's largest island, more than eight times the size of Great Britain, more than 25,000 times as big as Guernsey, and yet its population is lower than Guernsey's, at 57,564.

Why is Greenland so empty?

This is one of the coldest places on earth. Most of Greenland is located within the Arctic Circle. It is estimated that nearly 678,000 square miles, or more than 80 per cent of its surface, is permanently covered in ice. The capital, Nuuk, is the only settlement of any size on the island that is south of the Arctic circle.

In northern settlements, such as Nord or Qaanaaq, otherwise known as Thule, it is dark 24 hours a day at this time of year, but in mid-summer there is brilliant sun shine right through the night. There are more hours of sunshine during the Greenland summer than further south, and the light is much more intense, but it is still cold.

How much ice is there in Greenland?

One of the silliest pieces of journalism of recent years was a polemic in one newspaper in which a writer claimed to have proved that global warming would not cause floods, because if you melt an ice cube in a gin and tonic, the level of the liquid stays constant. This assumes that all the ice in the world is floating in the sea as icebergs. Actually, no less than 10 per cent of the world's fresh water is frozen on Greenland, where the ice is almost two miles thick in places. If all of Greenland's ice melted, the oceans would rise by 23 feet all around the world.

Who lives in Greenland?

Given the climate, it is hardly surprising that very few Europeans or Americans are tempted to settle there. About 88 per cent of the population were born on the island, and the great majority of these native Greenlanders are Inuit, who speak their own language, variously called Greenlander, or East Inuit.

The earliest inhabitants, the Saqqaq, migrated from North American about 5,000 years ago. The Thule, who are closely related to the Inuit, arrived about 900 AD, at about the same time that Viking explorers first discovered that there was another big island further west than Iceland.

What is the link with Denmark?

Greenland's connection with Europe is historic rather than geographical. In places, Greenland's northern coast is only 140 miles from Ellesmere Island, which is part of Canada. Nuuk is about 420 miles from the nearest Canadian town, but 2,200 miles from Copenhagen. But while Greenland's first inhabitants came from America, they were not so well armed as those who came from the east.

The first was Eric the Red, a troublemaker who had been banished from Iceland in 982, and called his new homeland "Greenland" in the hope that it would attract other settlers. This settlement lasted three or four centuries. The Danes returned in 1721, and permanently colonised the island.

What is the island'scurrent status?

For years, Greenland, was administratively a Danish province. As such it became part of the EU in 1973. This meant that more than half the land area of the EU was across the Atlantic near Canada. In 1979, the island was granted limited self-government with its own Parliament, but Denmark retained control over foreign affairs and military questions. EU membership threatened to be a severe handicap for the islanders, because of a dispute over fishing rights.

In 1985, they voted to leave. Since then, they have been in the strange position where the island is ruled by Denmark, but not subject to EU law, which does apply in Denmark.

Is there an American presence?

For over half a century, there has been a US presence on the island, in the form of a radar base at Thule, in the north, opened in 1953, soon after the onset of the Cold War, to keep a watch on any Soviet or Russian air traffic in the Arctic circle. It was further north than any other US base, and was regarded as the "eyes of freedom". To make room for it, the Danes forcibly removed the Inuits whose forebears had lived there for thousands of years earlier.

The base stayed after the Cold War was over, and was also used by the US to store nuclear surface-to-air missiles. On 1999, 53 of the former Inuit inhabitants obtained a high court ruling in Denmark that it was Inuit land. Soon afterwards, they won a belated admission that a B-52 laden with nuclear bombs had crashed at Thule in 1968, exposing some 1,700 people to radiation. Nonetheless, the base is still there, a key element in NATO's early warning system, and unlikely to be immediately affected by yesterday's vote.

What is the Greenland economy run on?

Traditionally, the Greenlanders have lived by fishing, whaling and seal hunting, and have been heavily reliant on Danish subsidies. But the melting of the Arctic ice is making mining and drilling operations possible where they were not possible in the past. There are coal, diamonds, iron, zinc uranium and other valuable metal deposits in Greenland, and probably also large undiscovered oil and gas fields, which could end the island's economic dependence on Denmark. Unlike Iceland, Greenland has no major banks – which is perhaps just as well.

When might independence happen?

The new arrangements agreed in yesterday's vote take effect on 21 June 2009, which will be the longest day of the year. When or if full independence follows is anybody's guess, but one date which campaigners have in their sites is 2021, which will mark the 300th anniversary of colonisation by Denmark.

Hans Enoksen, the head of Greenland's government, said he dreams of an independent Greenland in 12 years, in time "for my 65th birthday". His former foreign minister Aleqa Hammond hopes it will happen in eight years, while the head of Greenland's employees union would prefer four years. Others, particularly among the Danish minority, hope it will not happen at all.

So should Greenland continue on the road to self-government?


* Greenland's people are not Danes, nor Europeans, but Inuits with their own language, culture, and way of life

* Greenland's future is with North America, to which it is closest geographically

* As the Arctic ice cap melts, Greenland will have enough oil and mineral reserves to support itself


* An island with a population smaller than Guernsey cannot be genuinely self-governing

* Greenland has no means of defending itself, and would simply exchange Danish protection for US protection

* Its environment is not a local issue but an international one. It cannot be left to fewer than 60,000 islanders

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