The Case for Greenlandic Independence

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.

The Looming Crisis in the Heart of Africa

By Thomas Bell

Africa as a continent has a complicated history, but its modern past has been unstable and violent.  African countries, unable to cope with the ethnic, political, and economic constraints imposed by European imperialism, have proven largely unable to industrialize and modernize since independence.  Civil wars, genocide, and massive poverty are all traits commonly associated with Africa, for good reason.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, and formerly Zaïre, is one of the better examples of this reality.

The Congolese saga began with colonialism.  Much of the first contacts with Europeans involved trading, eventually for slaves.  Belgian colonial control later spread, leaving the nation subjugated under the weight of direct imperial rule from 1908 to 1960.  Since independence, the DRC has not enjoyed a single peaceful transfer of power, with assassination, civil war, and even invasion being the catalysts for political change.

The current Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, has been in power since January of 2001, with his second and final term under the constitution having expired in December last year.  Under the constitution of the DRC, Kabila is limited to two terms and should have stepped down.  This, however, did not happen; Congo’s electoral authority announced that the election would be postponed to allow time for a census to take place, an invalid reason under the country’s laws.  Predictably, that decision plunged the DRC into chaos.

Protests in December left dozens dead, resulting in an increased police presence and the blockage of social media.  The government has delayed the elections until at least December 2018, though in principle that could stretch further.  In the meantime, mediation by the Catholic Church has proven moderately successful at quelling the immediate threat of violence, while the appointment of an opposition leader as Prime Minister is a step in the right direction.

However, the risks in Congo are horrifyingly apparent.  Past power shifts have not only been violent, but often catastrophically so.  In 1996, the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko’s government by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and rebel groups left up to a million dead and led to an even more cataclysmic conflict only two years later.  The Second Congo War, linked directly to the 1996 overthrow, killed more people in any conflict since the Second World War.   It brought nine African national armies into conflict in Congo, plus over twenty rebel groups.  It also led to the political involvement of nearly half a dozen other African nations.  It has been appropriately dubbed by historians and journalists as “Africa’s World War”.

Simply put, the Congo is a volatile, dangerous place, where continental warfare was waged barely over a decade ago.  Rebel groups still roam Eastern Congo, killing and raping countless people.  Political instability could lead to the growth of these groups, and perhaps even the involvement of national governments again.  The DRC is a place where widespread, tumultuous violence is commonplace both now and in the recent past.

This is why Kabila’s actions could be so disastrous for Congo.  The lack of a successful transition of power in national history sets a poor blueprint to follow, especially for a leader in power for so long.  Since Mobutu, Congo’s leaders have proven autocratic and unwilling to relinquish control.  Tales of Mobutu’s “Versailles of the jungle”, a spectacular marble palace, is just one example of the corruption that made Congo famous.  If Kabila is seeking a long reign such as that, it could similarly dissolve into disarray and war, just as Mobutu’s did.

But many feel that not enough is being done to stop Kabila.  Belgium and France, two of the most important influencers in Congolese policy, both merely stated that they would review their respective relationships with the DRC.  The United States and the United Kingdom both offered similar statements, if a bit more strongly worded.  The point is, none of the countries most able to hurt the government, both politically and economically, have bothered to take steps in that direction.  A fairly widespread lack of media and public interest among western populations in African affairs likely has something to do with it.  The aforementioned Second Congo War, though being the deadliest conflict since World War II, is seldom discussed in academic settings, let alone the public square.  A history of American inaction in Africa dates back to the Clinton presidency when the administration knew about the Rwandan genocide yet chose to ignore it.  The sad reality is that not enough people in the west care and intentional ignorance could again be the policy of the west.

All the while, Joseph Kabila sits in his massive Kinshasa palace, reportedly playing video games and collecting motorcycles.  Outside those walls, millions live in abject poverty, violence plagues the streets, and an oblivious world looks the other way.  As Congo descends further and further towards chaos, it is anyone’s guess how the crisis will play out.  A country with such a dark history, however, cannot afford to allow that history to repeat itself.

Greece A Decade After the Recession: What Happened?

By Thomas Bell

In 2001, Greece adopted the euro as it integrated itself into the European Union.  While the government accumulated substantial debt to pay for expensive social programs, further growth occurred throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

Then, the Great Recession struck, and Greece’s success story quickly turned to modern economic tragedy.

Much of what could go wrong in Greece, did. It was revealed that the government had been misreporting financial data, making the country’s deficits and debts seem much smaller than they really were.  This incentivized investors and bond buyers, who would otherwise have been put off by such heinous financial figures, to invest in the country. In 2010, Greece’s bonds were downgraded to “junk” status by Standard & Poor, leaving the country in danger of defaulting on its loans and obligations.  The Troika, made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund, handed Greece a bailout worth €110 billion, followed by revised and expanded loan deals. Though the costs of this handout were high, the Troika knew that if Greece collapsed further, it could endanger the euro as a whole and all the countries that rely upon it as their monetary backbone. In order to receive this assistance, Greece has passed fourteen controversial austerity programs, slashing public spending and raising taxes. Unemployment, poverty, and unrest have skyrocketed. In short, Greece has been decimated by the economic downturn.

But this all started around a decade ago. Other countries, like Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, faced similar crises, and all recovered by about 2013 or 2014. Meanwhile, between 2008 and 2015, Greece was in recession for all but 2014, when it saw a paltry growth rate of 0.35%. Last year, growth was limited to an insignificant 0.01%, while this year may well be the first since 2007 to see an expansion of the economy by over 2%. Why has Greece been left behind in Europe’s recovery?

The answer to this question is complicated.

Greece’s handling of its finances before the crisis has made it uniquely incapable of responding to the recession. By masking its budgets and deceiving the international community, it made investors unwilling to trust the government’s figures on the economy. High deficits and debts caved under the pressure of economic downturn, and the realization that those elements were higher than anticipated only made things worse. The country soon found its credit rating plummeting and its bonds rendered useless. Realizing that it could not pay its bills, it had to take money from the Troika.

But that money did not come without strings attached. Not only was it a loan that had to be paid back, but the aforementioned austerity measures were required by the Troika. These curtailments on spending and increase in taxes did not go well at all in Greece, with protests becoming a regular occurrence in Athens and elsewhere. Shops burned down, nationwide strikes were called, violent clashes with police occurred. One retiree, who saw his pension reduced to a tiny fraction of what it was before the legislation, committed suicide as an act of protest. He has become a martyr for many Greeks who believe that this time of suffering should inspire further government assistance, not a reduction in that aid.

But the fundamental issue has largely been Greece’s poor fiscal policies, dating back to before the recession.  Upon joining the eurozone, Greece spent tremendous amounts of money on social welfare programs, attempting to emulate the generous policies of western and northern Europe.  But unlike those countries, Greece was nowhere near able to pay for it all.  The government happily added up the debt, with only minor attempts to reduce the deficit.

This lack of fiscal responsibility is also seen in military spending.  Of the nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Greece pays the second most of any country in regards to spending as a percentage of GDP, allocating 2.46% for the military in 2015.  This figure doubles German spending and easily tops the British and French, while only trailing the United States.  And this occurred while the country was in recession, with figures looming higher before the crisis.

This poor decision-making in Athens led to the current dilemma, and solutions have not been particularly beneficial either.  The bailouts have gone a long way towards helping Greece repay its debts, but the austerity programs enacted in the interim have been devastating.  Wages for public employees were slashed, while the national minimum wage dropped by nearly a quarter.  New tax increases targeted the VAT, landowners, luxury goods, gasoline, and more.  All this, while the billions of euros in bailouts were used to pay back banks and financial entities.  This has largely meant that average Greeks have sacrificed numerous benefits, without necessarily seeing any direct aid.  These policies are what has prolonged the suffering for so many and mired the recovery effort for so long.

However, it seems that the future may not be quite so bleak.  Indications show that the Greek economy will grow this year, and likely by over 2%.  An effort to privatize certain industries, such as transportation, has resulted in increased business enterprise in the country.  Unemployment, while still high, is falling; the government predicts that it will match the European average near 2020.  Tourism, one of Greece’s most important industries, has increased substantially.

In the end, it will be a difficult road for Greece.  Despite the improvement, the country still remains far below its pre-recession heights in terms of economic size.  With the economy only just barely expanding, it will be a long time before it resembles its former self.  The crisis serves as one of the most telling and chaotic legacies of the Great Recession and serves as an example for the future.  Greece, a decade after the crash, is only just beginning to find its footing again and remains a country defined by its struggle to survive.