A Scenic Landscape and Tumultuous History
The world’s largest island is one covered by glaciers, surrounded by icebergs, and blanketed by snow. It is sparsely populated by just 56,000 inhabitants spanning over 2 million km2. Since the first human settlements were established on the island over 800 years ago, Greenland has experienced many countries intent on gaining control of the island over the centuries. From the age of the Vikings spanning across the eighth to the eleventh century, to the age of enlightenment in the 18th century, and then to the modern-day, Greenland’s political system has been largely shaped and constructed by the outside world and its governments. It makes for a fascinating case study on nationhood and global power politics.
Danish Exploration and Colonisation
In the early 1720s, a group of Danes left their country, sailing to eventually arrive in Greenland. The creation of a new Danish settlement near present-day Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, marked the beginning of the colonial era in Greenland. In the coming 200 years, Greenland experienced an attempted forced conversion to Christianity, suppression of Greenlandic language and culture, and exploitation of Greenland’s natural resources for Denmark’s gain. This system of Danish colonial control lasted until the beginning of the Second World War when Denmark fell to Nazi occupation and the U.S. assumed protective custody over Greenland in the interim.
More Autonomy or Less Autonomy
When post-war Denmark reclaimed Greenland, in 1953, the island received official recognition as an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark and was thus granted representation in the Danish parliament. However, in that same year, as Greenland was gaining recognition and greater autonomy within the Kingdom, Danish authorities expelled a group of Inuit from their ancestral homelands in the far north-west of the island, in order to clear space for a US airbase at Thule. Did the inclusion of Greenland in Parliament therefore indeed signify a change in Denmark’s view on Greenland and its people? By 1972, Denmark and Greenland joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the EU. At that point, hopes amongst many Greenlanders were brewing of the day Greenland would have more say in its own future.
Greenland Home-Rule Referendum
Following on from Greenland entering the EEC, just seven years later Greenland held its first referendum, and the hope for more freedom was believed to be less far-fetched. On the 17th of January 1979, Greenland held a referendum on home rule, on which roughly 70% of voters voted in favour of the proposal. This led to the establishment of a Greenlandic parliament and Greenland gaining control of sectors such as education, health, fisheries, and the environment. The motion came into effect in early May of 1979 and meant that Greenland was now joining the Faroe Islands as an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. This vote was the first referendum in the country’s history, though another two were to follow soon after: a referendum on EEC membership, and a referendum for more political autonomy for Greenland.
Leaving EEC – Greexit
The second referendum took place on the 23rd of February 1982, where Greenlanders voted to leave the EEC. This was mainly due to the impact of common market regulations on Greenland’s fishing industry, which remains, to this day, Greenland’s largest economic sector and accounts for around 50% of its GDP. At this point, the result was perceived as a huge success for many Greenlanders, though it was to be dwarfed by the referendum of 2008. The outcome would change Greenland’s political capacity greatly.
A Vote for More Autonomy
In 2008, 75.5% of Greenland’s electorate voted in favour of greater political autonomy or, in other words, self-rule. This came into effect on the 21st of June 2009, the 30th anniversary of the first home-rule referendum. The resulting Act on Greenland Self-Government involved Greenland gaining greater control of its police, coast guard and courts. And another milestone was achieved: Kalaallisut, or Western Greenlandic, was recognised as the sole official language of the nation. Greenlandic oil revenues would now be divided differently, and annual subsidies from Copenhagen to Greenland would be phased out, granting Greenland more financial freedom, but also less financial support from Copenhagen. Following this ruling on self-government, Greenlanders are now recognised as a separate people from the Danes under international law.
Trump and Perceptions of Greenland
Despite the above factors and their contribution to Greenlandic nationhood, the belief by many outsiders persists that Greenland is merely a remote, underdeveloped island at the top of the world map, and not as a functioning nation-state. One of the most dominant names for this belief is Donald Trump. In August 2019, Trump expressed a wish for the United States to buy Greenland, claiming that it would be “essentially a large real estate deal.” This caused worldwide outrage, as many argued that this statement illustrated the U.S. President’s disregard for the history and culture of this land and the sovereignty of its people. It was part of a story told too many times, especially in Greenland, of yet another powerful country wishing to gain control of Greenland in a possible attempt to exploit its valuable natural resources and geostrategic location. In response to Trump’s passé comments, Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen spoke to the newspaper Sermitsiaq, saying that “Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland,” a statement which many said perfectly summed up the sentiments of those opposing Trump’s proposal.
The Greenland to Come
Throughout its history, the world’s largest island has changed multiple times. After three referendums, will Greenland continue to become more and more separated from Denmark? Or will the status quo be what the islanders want to settle on? Despite some tainted perceptions of the autonomous country, Greenland’s political power has unquestionably increased compared to when Danish rule began in the early 1720s. And it serves as an insightful case study on issues of constitutional evolution, nationhood, and geopolitics.