By Thomas Bell
In the past few weeks, the independence crisis in Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia has captivated the international community. A complicated tangle of history, regionalism, constitutional law, and Spanish retaliation to the referendum culminated to create a divisive and complex debate. Many international observers supported independence, despite low voter turnout, while others emphasized the strength of a united Spain. It was the first intensive global look into separatism since the Scottish referendum of 2014.
The Catalan issue for many has been a reminder of other separatist movements around the globe. Most of these are politically and culturally significant, from Taiwan to Texas. However, one such regional independence movement that does not frequently enter the conversation is Greenland. It is the world’s largest island, and it is dominated by its imposing glacial ice sheet. Realistically, however, that fact is all that most people know about the nation. Articles about Greenland tend to be about climate change, polar bears, or both. That lack of media attention concerning its political history leaves a complex story undiscovered and unexplored by many.
Greenland has been occupied by native peoples for thousands of years, but the harsh Arctic climate has made settlement largely inconsistent. Groups migrated from Canada, died out, and were replaced by subsequent individuals. In fact, for a number of centuries in the first millennium, the island was completely uninhabited. Europeans eventually reached the island, most famously when Erik the Red sailed from Iceland and established, in the 980s, the first Norse settlement in Greenland, or Grœnland as he called it. But this group of settlers was also doomed to succumb to the climate: the Norse were gone by 1450. Eventually, as navigation and technology improved, Greenland became increasingly inhabited by its native Inuit people and was subsequently colonized by Denmark. Despite a 100 million dollar offer from the United States to buy the island in 1946, it remains Danish territory to this day.
Yet Greenland has a history that suggests that it does not approve of this reality. It was not until 1951 that Greenlanders received representation in the Danish parliament, something that embittered the island for decades. In 1979, Greenland took its ambitions a step further, voting for home rule in a critical referendum. All internal matters from that point on were made in Greenland, with Denmark being responsible for foreign affairs, defense, and constitutional issues.
However, the biggest strides towards independence have come quite recently. In 2008, Greenland voted on another self-government referendum, which proposed granting the home-rule government control over law enforcement and the courts, as well as the coast guard. The referendum also included changing the official language from Danish to Kalaallisut, better known simply as Greenlandic in the west. A staggering 75% of the population supported the measure. In 2014, the most recent parliamentary elections were held, granting a pro-independence coalition of parties a commanding 26 seats in the 31 member unicameral legislature. As if more evidence was needed, a 2016 poll showed that 64% of Greenlanders wanted full independence, which tops the support for Catalan independence by nearly 25%.
However, despite the obvious popular support for independence in Greenland, a clean break from Denmark would not be easy. The principal reasons for this are economic concerns. According to the United Nations, Greenland had a total nominal gross domestic product of about 2 billion dollars in 2015. To put that figure into perspective, it is nearly a third smaller than the same figure from Danville, Illinois. That might be acceptable if the economy was diverse and robust, but the reality is that 94% of Greenlandic exports consist of fish. A down year or some environmental threat to the marine life would be a complete disaster for the economy, and without Danish support, the results could be catastrophic. Deeply connected to this situation is the fact that Denmark largely funds the Greenlandic government’s operations as it is, handing a block grant subsidy to the island worth about £400 million every year. This amount accounts for roughly 55% of the island’s annual state budget. Though part of the 2008 referendum was to phase out this grant, doing so all at once would leave the new country with a massive deficit, one that Greenland would likely be unable to compensate with its fish exports. Under current conditions, the country’s quality of life could go down remarkably if independence was immediately granted, and despite widespread support for independence, 78% of Greenlanders oppose it if it means a fall in living standards.
However, there are signs that the Greenlandic economy can change and diversify. Massive amounts of mineral and oil deposits have been discovered beneath Greenland’s ice sheet or off the coast, representing a new industry that could drastically increase the wealth of the nation. The new coalition government has allowed for uranium mining, while corporations such as BP and Shell have been granted licenses to explore for oil and gas. Understandably, environmentalists worldwide have condemned such steps, declaring that it will ruin Greenland’s pristine environment.
Many Greenlanders, however, have a different view. The simple reality is that climate change will have notable positive effects on the Greenlandic economy, and by extension, the independence movement. Shrinking ice caps reveal much of the mineral wealth that has been hidden beneath them for so long, and allows for easier offshore drilling. Fishing hauls have also improved, as warmer oceans drive more fish north towards Greenland’s coasts. Additionally, rising temperatures will allow for more agricultural opportunities in the country’s south, not to mention a longer tourist season as well. As one Greenlander puts it, “we are more concerned about the Maldives”.
Greenland occupies a unique position in the international sphere. As tensions between Arctic states such as the United States, Russia, and Canada become more intense, the island holds a strong foothold in this new arena. Global warming, heavily denounced at lower latitudes, could open up a myriad of economic possibilities for the nation, creating new jobs and a more diverse economy. And historically, territories have been let loose with less going for them. Decades after the collapse of the old imperial system and colonialism, Greenland seems to have become the last vast colony left behind. While islands across the globe remain under European control, none are so visible as Greenland. Despite this, it is among the world’s most ignored places, referenced mournfully in climate documentaries, never to be discussed further. Yet while the world remains engaged and captivated by Catalonia, a region that lacks a simple majority in support of independence, the world’s largest island marches on. As the economy continues to grow and separatist support intensifies, it will grow increasingly difficult for the Danes to restrain their northern territory, should they decide to crack down as Madrid did last month.
Pro-independence campaigners have pointed towards the 300th anniversary of Danish colonization, 2021, as a possible goal for separation, meaning that Greenland could vie for statehood in only a few years. Regardless of the exact date, the world’s biggest colony wants its freedom. That much has become obvious, with referendums, opinion polls, and parliamentary elections all pointing in the same direction. It has become a question not of if, but of when? The question remains of how Greenland will step towards the future as an independent state. Though it may be years off, it is likely that the world’s newest country will come not from northeastern Spain, but from the farthest reaches of the Arctic.