Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, and Greenlandic Prime Minister Jonathan Motzfeldt at Igaliku church ruin, July 2000. Photo: Peter Bertrand, Greenland Home Rule Government.
Greenland is preparing for a future envisioned as involving climate change, intensive raw material extraction, new transportation corridors, and new claims to sovereign rights over the Arctic. So is Denmark who holds sovereignty over Greenland. With a view to acquiring more room to manoeuvre, Greenland uses this picture of the future as a tool when cultivating relations beyond Copenhagen. The manner in which Denmark has facilitated these efforts could very well be a model for the further diversification of Greenland’s relations with (and dependency on) the rest of the world. This model could paradoxically extend the expiry date of the community of the realm by turning the community into a vehicle for making itself functionally unnecessary. Simultaneously, Denmark can demonstrate that it is no longer the imperial oppressor that it insists that it never really was. But Greenland aims not only for diversification of dependency – Greenland aims also for formal equality with Denmark. The ‘community of the realm’ connecting Greenland to Denmark is a free association ‒ not in the legal sense prescribed by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 1541 (XV) but in the pragmatic sense that everyone agrees that Greenland is free to disassociate. Greenlandic demands for formal equality pose problems for Danish constitutional lawyers. This intervention, however, argues that we should not take their gripes too seriously.
In 1953, Greenland was ‘decolonized’ by being integrated as a formally equal part of Denmark. Home rule was introduced in Greenland following a 1978 referendum in which 70% of the electorate concurred. The opposition to the new arrangement was split between one minority favoring continued formal integration into Denmark and another minority demanding more rights than granted or even independence. In effect, the majority voted to remain under Danish sovereignty. Some 30 years later, a 75% majority confirmed this in a referendum on an enhanced version of home rule. Notably, however, the new ‘self-government’ enacted in 2009 explicitly laid out a road map for full formal sovereignty for Greenland.
Greenland stands out in three regards among formally non-sovereign polities. First, Greenland combines a very large territory with a very small population ‒ a large majority of which self-identifies as Greenlanders rather than Danes. This combination has given rise to peculiar games played by Denmark to maintain its sovereignty over Greenland – including, most spectacularly, awarding the US free hands in using Greenlandic territory for defense purposes in exchange of formally keeping sovereignty in Copenhagen. Hence, Greenland’s experience with the concept of sovereignty and with Danish colonial projects has shaped its postcoloniality. Second, the Greenlandic national identity discourse has been formulated in opposition to Denmark. Simultaneously, however, Denmark’s self-image (a culturally homogenous people in possession of its own state) has been taken as a blueprint for how to be a nation state. Third, taken together these experiences have given Greenlandic political identity a distinctly transitional character. Even if Greenland was formally decolonized in 1953 by integration into Denmark and more substantially so by the introduction of home rule, it continues to see itself as being on the road to independence.
What does equality mean?
On its way to independence, Greenland is – along with the Faroe Islands – part of what is known as Rigsfællesskabet, meaning the ‘community of the realm’, with Denmark. The self-image developed in the relationship to the Danish colonizers – that Greenlanders constitute a nation which ought to have its own state, just like Danes – sits uneasy with the fact that formal sovereignty remains in Copenhagen. One decisive factor for upholding the community is the ability and willingness to accept creative ways of making it appear equal.
Since the 2009 introduction of ‘self-government’, Danish politicians have become more careful avoiding notions of hierarchy when describing the relation between Denmark and Greenland. ‘Equal partnership’ is now the preferred description of the community of the realm. Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Soc.Dem.), then Danish prime minister, noted in an op-ed commentary on the occasion of the newly instated tradition of an annual parliamentary debate on the ‘state of the community of the realm’ that it has been a long time since the community of the realm has been facing so many and such large matters that we must solve together. To me, this shows that we have an active and living community of the realm. And moreover, we have a will to find common solutions in a constructive cooperation on equal footing.1)Thorning-Schmidt H (2014) Ligeværdigt samarbejde i rigsfællesskabet, op-ed Berlingske, 29 April, www.b.dk/kronikker/ligevaerdigt-samarbejde-i-rigsfaellesskabet. Accessed on 8 September 2016; author’s translation
But in effect, her statement leaves open whether the parties are already on equal footing looking for common solutions ‒ or if the equal footing is postponed to be realized only in the solutions which the parties are looking for. This ambiguous understanding has prevailed under the current prime minister Lars Løkke-Rasmussen (Lib.).
Greenlandic politicians have, despite differences in rhetoric, been consistent since 2009 when describing the road towards independence: The next step is to nudge closer to a self-supporting economy, then Greenland will claim sovereignty, and, hence, be able to engage in an equal cooperation with Denmark in a revised version of a community of the realm. But what ‘equal cooperation’ will look like is rarely discussed in detail. In the present situation it has become difficult to demand substantial steps of devolution on the road towards independence, particularly because the 2009 law stipulates that the Government of Greenland must itself pay for every new responsibility devolved from Denmark. This is different from the 1978 law, which provided for an increase in the annual block grant equalling the amount the Danish state had spent thus far on the issue. Hence, in a 2014 debate in the Danish parliament on the community of the realm, Sara Olsvig ‒ later chairperson of Greenland’s left wing party ‒ challenged neither the new formal status of Greenland nor the division of labour between Copenhagen and Nuuk. Rather she insisted that the Law on Self-Government commits Denmark to do more: “[I would also like to see] the Danish members of parliament display greater engagement and greater interest in pre-empting the many problems that we see in areas such as the justice and prison systems and other issue areas still under Danish responsibility.”2)Folketinget (2014) Statsministerens redegørelse om rigsfællesskabet. Session: 2013-14. Meeting number 81. Olsvig S. 17:56. www.ft.dk/samling/20131/redegoerelse/r12/beh1/253/forhandling.htm?startItem=#nav. Accessed on 8 September 2016; author’s translation
Nevertheless, when opinion polls foresaw that Greenlandic and Faroese votes could be decisive for which government could be formed in Copenhagen after the 2015 parliamentary elections, one demand for equality resurfaced: The demand for a separate Greenlandic ‒ and a separate Faroese ‒ constitution.3)Sermitsiaq (2015) Nye krav om grønlandsk grundlov. Sermitsiaq, 3 May, sermitsiaq.ag/nye-krav-groenlandsk-grundlov. Accessed on 9 May 2016
Even if the ambition is to devise a text which would work both within and without the community of the realm, this project would require Greenlandic politicians to be more nuanced and precise when describing the nature of the relationship with Denmark they prefer after formal Greenlandic independence. The widely recycled headline of ‘Free Association’ in accordance with the UN decolonization framework remains just that: a headline that has not been given much substance so far.
How to continue the story
One way for Denmark to extend the expiry date for the community of the realm would be to take the shared narrative to heart that was established through the bilateral Commission on Self-Government and codified in the preamble of the 2009 Law on Self-Government. Here, Denmark explicitly recognized that Greenland and Denmark are equal members in one important sense: Greenland has the right to unilaterally declare its independence, even if certain formalities must be negotiated and certain legal procedures might delay the procedure. All Greenlandic and Danish politicians today agree that Greenland should be working towards a self-supporting economy. Imagining, however, what should happen after the day self-support materializes, Greenlandic and Danish representatives part ways. Greenlanders imply that they would declare independence once a self-supporting economy has been established. Danish politicians, on the other hand, always make sure to include a phrase to assure that even if it is Greenland’s own decision if and when to go, they hope that Greenland will choose to stay. As an alternative, Denmark could explicitly embrace Greenlandic independence as a joint goal and accepting that it is imminent. Hence, the joint purpose of the community of the realm would be not merely to render Greenland increasingly able to support itself within the community of the realm. Rather, the joint purpose of the community would be a sovereign Greenlandic state. Such a re-calibrated aim would leave Greenlanders with less reason to nurture conspiracy theories of Denmark’s true intentions – and with less occasions for Greenland to stumble into declaring sovereignty as a response to Danish allusions to the inevitability of permanent custodianship. However, it seems to be very difficult for Danish politicians to arrive at the paradoxical conclusion that the community is best sustained by directing it towards the complete cancellation of the colonial power relation.
One chance for Denmark to demonstrate that the development of the community of the realm is not based on Danish superiority but rather on equality may present itself soon. Both the Greenlandic and Faroese parliaments have decided to move towards adopting their own constitutions. The Greenlandic Parliament is likely to revive the process it has already initiated twice.4)Sermitsiaq (2015) Nye krav om grønlandsk grundlov. Sermitsiaq, 3 May, sermitsiaq.ag/nye-krav-groenlandsk-grundlov. Accessed on 9 May 2016
The Faroese already had a full draft in 2011, which was even supported by the parties favouring continued association with Denmark.5)Lidegaard B (2012) Jeg ser tre selvstændige lande, interview with KL Johannesen. Politiken, 12 August, politiken.dk/indland/politik/ECE1731165/jeg-ser-tre-selvstaendige-lande/. Accessed on 9 May 2016; Skaale S (2012) Vi kan ikke både have grundloven og et stærkt rigsfællesskab, op.ed. Politiken, 31 August, politiken.dk/debat/ECE1738300/vi-kan-ikke-baade-have-grundloven-og-et-staerkt-rigsfaellesskab/. Accessed on 5 September 2016 However, the Faroese Parliament stopped short of adopting the text when Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen conveyed the message that it was unclear whether the proposed Faroese constitution was consistent with the Danish constitution.6)Ritzau (2011) Løkke truer Færøerne: I ryger ud af rigsfællesskab. Politiken, 6 July, politiken.dk/indland/politik/ECE1328623/loekke-truer-faeroeerne-i-ryger-ud-af-rigsfaellesskab/. Accessed on 9 May 2016 Activist legal theorists, on the other hand, insist that there need not be a problem with having two (or three) constitutions in one realm.7)Sermitsiaq (2015) Nye krav om grønlandsk grundlov. Sermitsiaq, 3 May, sermitsiaq.ag/nye-krav-groenlandsk-grundlov. Accessed on 9 May 2016
But what does Denmark gain by actively discouraging the Faroese and Greenlanders from adopting their respective constitutions? There is no chance that Danish representatives would ultimately stand up in the parliaments in Tórshavn and Nuuk to try to stop the vote ‒ let alone sending warships to convey the message (as the Danish government did when a Faroese referendum decided in favor of independence in 1946). If Denmark wants to continue the community of the realm, the most principled reply would involve a revision or merely a re-interpretation of the Danish constitution to describe its relation to the two new constitutions. Even though the development of the community of the realm is full of episodes in which steps of devolution hitherto deemed unconstitutional were suddenly no longer so, a legal acceptance of two new basic laws would probably be too big a step for Danish authorities.
Even then, however, the Danish government could choose ‘constructive disagreement’. This was the approach adopted, at least for a while, in the case of the planned export of uranium from Greenland: The Danish and Greenlandic governments disagreed over who has competence on the issue, but they agreed to disagree on the principle and concentrate on how export should be handled in practice.8)Regeringen & Naalakkersuisut (2013) Rapport om udvinding og eksport af uran. Arbejdsgruppen om konsekvenserne af ophævelsen af nul-tolerancepolitikken. Copenhagen: Rosendahls Schultz Grafisk A/S, October, um.dk/da/~/media/UM/Danish-site/Documents/Udenrigspolitik/Nyheder_udenrigspolitik/2013/4701_URAN_DK_web.pdf. Accessed on 9 May 2016 After a couple of years of disagreement, a joint working group established to describe procedures for uranium export produced four agreements ‒ signed by Danish and Greenlandic ministers ‒ which, in a more or less convoluted manner, confirmed the Danish interpretation of the division of sovereignty: Greenland can mine uranium but exports must be controlled by Danish authorities.9)Naalakkersuisut (2016) Aftale med den danske regering om uran. Naalakkersuisut, 1 February, naalakkersuisut.gl/da/Naalakkersuisut/Nyheder/2016/02/010216_samarbejde. Accessed on 9 May 2016
Nevertheless, when faced with the reality of a Greenlandic (or Faroese) constitution adopted by the parliament in Nuuk (or Tórshavn), business will most likely go on as usual; the block grant cheques will keep on flowing. Whether formally acknowledged or not, the practical reality of the relationships of both Greenland and the Faroese to Denmark is free association ‒ Denmark cannot use its power overtly without disproving the freedom of association. Gunboats or high commissioners intervening in parliamentary decision making or electoral referenda would not save the community – it would end it.
An ever looser union
In this regard, the community of the realm might seek inspiration in another, troubled union. It has been argued that the EU needs to maintain its mission statement, ‘an ever closer union’. It must keep integrating to be legitimate. Like a bicycle, it must keep moving forward, otherwise it will fall over.10)Moravcsik A (2007) The European Union: Rhetoric and Reality. Scandinavian Studies in Law 52(1): 383‒92. In this regard, the community of the realm appears to be a bicycle in reverse gear. The community of the realm must keep disintegrating to be legitimate. In other words, the community of the realm might actually be the opposite of the EU: ‘an ever looser union’. One might think that Denmark could postpone the expiry date of the community of the realm by formalizing what is already the practical reality: The community of the realm is a free association ‒ not in the legal sense prescribed by the UN but in the pragmatic sense that everyone agrees that Greenland and the Faroes are free to disassociate.
So if one wants the community of the realm to continue, why not just accept up front separate basic laws for Greenland and the Faroes? And why not accept up front to formalize the community of the realm as a ‘free association’ in a format compatible with UN provisions? However, one paradox remains: What if the bicycle reaches its goal? What if there is no more devolution to demand? No more formalities to protest? Will the bicycle fall? In other words, will Greenland not have to claim sovereignty when there is nothing else left to claim? Or to put it in theoretical terms, have the processual elements of Greenlandic identity ‒ being on the way from colonial subjection to independence ‒ become so ingrained that Greenland can never find rest? A hint to the answer might be found across the North Atlantic.
A Greenlandic sovereign nation state ‒ now imagined, someday possibly realized ‒ is and will be not just post-colonial but distinctly post-Danish. It is part of a series of North Atlantic, post-Danish nations, which also includes Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. They are post-Danish in two ways: First, they were constituted in revolt against Denmark as a colonial ruler. Second, they are modeled on a Danish ideal; that is, they are to a large degree conceptually isomorphic11)Adler-Nissen R & Gad UP (2014) Introduction: Postimperial Sovereignty Games in the Nordic Region. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 3–32.; Neumann IB (2014) Imperializing Norden. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 119‒29.; Wåhlin V (1994) Island, Færøerne, Grønland og det nordiske. Den Jyske Historiker 69–70: 38–61.: They share the same ideas about what constitutes a nation and what role this leaves for a state. This double effect of those ‘Danish’ ideas about how to be a nation will likely create challenges for the continuation of the community of the realm ‒ even as a self-declared ‘ever looser union’. The reason is that the Danish ideal stipulates that sovereignty ultimately belongs to a culturally homogeneous people – and vice versa; that a culturally homogenous people ought to have its own state. The realization of this ideal has been the impetus behind all of the independence movements against Denmark. In Norway, this struggle for sovereignty has been continued against the EU,12)Neumann IB (2002) This Little Piggy Stayed at Home: Why Norway Is Not a Member of the EU. In Hansen L & Wæver O (eds.) European Integration and National Identity: The Challenge of the Nordic States. London: Routledge, 88‒129. and the Norwegians have used it to absolve themselves of their complicity (as part of the Dano–Norwegian kingdom) in European imperialism, be it the slave trade or the colonization of Greenland: ‘How could we have been imperialists, when we were ourselves colonized?’13)Neumann IB (2014) Imperializing Norden. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 119‒29. In Iceland, the struggle for independence did not end with independence. Rather, it has to be re-enacted in relation to the past metropoles (Norway, Denmark), neighbors (the UK), and supranational organizations that could look like an empire in spe (the EU).14)Bergmann E (2014) Iceland: A Post-imperial Sovereignty Project. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 33‒54. Taking these ‘most similar’ cases as evidence, Greenland is likely to continue its struggle for sovereignty beyond formal sovereignty.
Niccolò says: Slow down
In this situation, a Machiavellian advisor to the Danish government ‒ and to any Greenlander who prefers a continued community of the realm ‒ would suggest that the bicycle proceeds (in reverse) at the lowest possible speed. The community of the realm must keep disintegrating but by drawing it out as long as possible, the accommodation of Greenlandic and Faroese demands for recognition and devolution will only come at the slowest possible pace. If such a line of reasoning is already secretly behind Danish policies, that would explain the dynamic (but slow motion) interpretation of what kind of recognition and devolution can be granted in accordance with the Danish constitution. Actually, Greenland can have anything they want in terms of equality and self-government ‒ but Greenland will only get it after, say, 20 years of experimentation, analysis, protest, contemplation, and negotiation. The timeline thus far confirms this: Equal integration in 1953. Recognition as distinct and home rule in 1979. Formal delegation of power to conclude (some) international agreements in 2005. Recognition as liable for self-determination in 2009. Extended into the future, the process could continue: A Greenlandic constitution in 2021. Recognition of the equal status of said basic law ‒ which would mean UN conform ‘free association’ ‒ in 2053.
Nonetheless, one question still remains: If association is to be free for both parties in such a formally equalized community of the realm, the conditions must be agreeable to both parties. What if Denmark does not agree to take on the tasks parceled out by Greenland on the ‘sale and lease back’ conditions imagined? Greenland needs to consider what to do, if Denmark does not accept the conditions on which Greenland wants to freely associate itself with Denmark. Perhaps you do not always want to get what you demand.
Ulrik Pram Gad is Associate Professor of Arctic Culture and Politics at the Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University, firstname.lastname@example.org. His book on the Greenland/EU relations and the future of the Danish Commonwealth, National Identity Politics and Postcolonial Sovereignty Games is just out in the ‘Monographs on Greenland’ series from Museum Tusculanum Publishers. From 1998 to 2002, he worked for the Government of Greenland in Nuuk as a management assistant in the Government Secretariat and as head of office in the Office for Foreign Affairs. His current research focuses on the postcolonial relationship between Greenland and Denmark, on the politics of sustainability in the Arctic, and on the identity politics and conflicts of Danish ‘Muslim relations’.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Thorning-Schmidt H (2014) Ligeværdigt samarbejde i rigsfællesskabet, op-ed Berlingske, 29 April, www.b.dk/kronikker/ligevaerdigt-samarbejde-i-rigsfaellesskabet. Accessed on 8 September 2016; author’s translation|
|2.||↑||Folketinget (2014) Statsministerens redegørelse om rigsfællesskabet. Session: 2013-14. Meeting number 81. Olsvig S. 17:56. www.ft.dk/samling/20131/redegoerelse/r12/beh1/253/forhandling.htm?startItem=#nav. Accessed on 8 September 2016; author’s translation|
|3, 4.||↑||Sermitsiaq (2015) Nye krav om grønlandsk grundlov. Sermitsiaq, 3 May, sermitsiaq.ag/nye-krav-groenlandsk-grundlov. Accessed on 9 May 2016|
|5.||↑||Lidegaard B (2012) Jeg ser tre selvstændige lande, interview with KL Johannesen. Politiken, 12 August, politiken.dk/indland/politik/ECE1731165/jeg-ser-tre-selvstaendige-lande/. Accessed on 9 May 2016; Skaale S (2012) Vi kan ikke både have grundloven og et stærkt rigsfællesskab, op.ed. Politiken, 31 August, politiken.dk/debat/ECE1738300/vi-kan-ikke-baade-have-grundloven-og-et-staerkt-rigsfaellesskab/. Accessed on 5 September 2016|
|6.||↑||Ritzau (2011) Løkke truer Færøerne: I ryger ud af rigsfællesskab. Politiken, 6 July, politiken.dk/indland/politik/ECE1328623/loekke-truer-faeroeerne-i-ryger-ud-af-rigsfaellesskab/. Accessed on 9 May 2016|
|7.||↑||Sermitsiaq (2015) Nye krav om grønlandsk grundlov. Sermitsiaq, 3 May, sermitsiaq.ag/nye-krav-groenlandsk-grundlov. Accessed on 9 May 2016|
|8.||↑||Regeringen & Naalakkersuisut (2013) Rapport om udvinding og eksport af uran. Arbejdsgruppen om konsekvenserne af ophævelsen af nul-tolerancepolitikken. Copenhagen: Rosendahls Schultz Grafisk A/S, October, um.dk/da/~/media/UM/Danish-site/Documents/Udenrigspolitik/Nyheder_udenrigspolitik/2013/4701_URAN_DK_web.pdf. Accessed on 9 May 2016|
|9.||↑||Naalakkersuisut (2016) Aftale med den danske regering om uran. Naalakkersuisut, 1 February, naalakkersuisut.gl/da/Naalakkersuisut/Nyheder/2016/02/010216_samarbejde. Accessed on 9 May 2016|
|10.||↑||Moravcsik A (2007) The European Union: Rhetoric and Reality. Scandinavian Studies in Law 52(1): 383‒92.|
|11.||↑||Adler-Nissen R & Gad UP (2014) Introduction: Postimperial Sovereignty Games in the Nordic Region. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 3–32.; Neumann IB (2014) Imperializing Norden. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 119‒29.; Wåhlin V (1994) Island, Færøerne, Grønland og det nordiske. Den Jyske Historiker 69–70: 38–61.|
|12.||↑||Neumann IB (2002) This Little Piggy Stayed at Home: Why Norway Is Not a Member of the EU. In Hansen L & Wæver O (eds.) European Integration and National Identity: The Challenge of the Nordic States. London: Routledge, 88‒129.|
|13.||↑||Neumann IB (2014) Imperializing Norden. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 119‒29.|
|14.||↑||Bergmann E (2014) Iceland: A Post-imperial Sovereignty Project. Cooperation & Conflict 49(1): 33‒54.|