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Free to decide for themselves

As Greenland celebrates five years of self-rule, most agree its relationship to Denmark is in transition. Where it is headed remains an open discussion
Indpendence is first and foremost a state of mind (Photo: Algkalv)

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For Greenland, June 21 is more than the longest day of the year. It is Ullortuneq, the country’s national day, but in, a number of ways, it is also the first day.

In 1985, it marked the first day the national flag was flown. Then, in 2009, in a less symbolic but profoundly more significant development, Ullortuneq was chosen as the day for Greenland to transition from ‘home rule’ to ‘self-rule’.

Under self-rule, Greenland is permitted to take control of all areas of government – with the exception of foreign and security policies – at the pace its society and economy can bear.

On the fifth anniversary implementation of the construction agreed upon by the Danish and Greenlandic governments as a way to allow the country to gradually assume more responsibility for its domestic affairs, much of the discussion has focused on where they country has come since 2009 to and how long it will be there until it moves on to its ultimate goal of full indepdenence.

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Writing in Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic newspaper and this website’s sister publication, Aleqa Hammond, the country’s pro-independence premier, described this year’s national day as the chance not just to take stock in what the country has accomplished, but also to look forward and get a reckoning of where it was heading.

“The implementation of home rule in 1979, and then self-rule in 2009, has prepared the ground for our independence. This is not a job for the Self-Rule Authority alone. Independence is something the entire nation must work towards – each and every day!”

The next step in Greenland’s development, Hammond wrote, would be to draw up a constitution, which she felt would be a codification of the country’s values and set a foundation for its independence.

She envisions that the process of creating a constitution will be a national discussion co-ordinated by a commission she intends to set up before the next general election is to be called in 2017.

“It is important that we speak with each other about the basics of how we want our country to be set up,” she wrote.

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According to the Self-Rule Act, Greenland is free to decide at any point whether it wants to be independent. Cultural and historic ties to Greenland are reason enough for some to remain linked in some fashion, another is that Greenland is still dependent on the 3.5 billion kroner ($580 million) it gets from Copenhagen each year in the form of a block grant.

But just as the country is in the process of establishing an independent economy, it also must go through the process of establishing an independent mind-set, according to Ole Spiermann, an expert in international law who sat on the committee that drew up the Self-Rule Act.

“Independence isn’t just a status,” he said. “It is also the process of coming to a decision. A part of Greenland’s independence lies in the fact that it is the people of Greenland themselves who decide whether Greenland is to be independent.”

Greenland’s right to self-determination has long been recognised, but the Self-Rule Act represented the first time it was written into Danish law.

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Although being permitted to have its own parliament, administration and judiciary provide Greenlanders with the trappings of eventual statehood, Spiermann said the most important right they had been given from Copenhagen was control over their underground.

The right is one that has come with strongs

The Self-Rule Act requires Greenland to share income from mineral and oil resource with Copenhagen until it makes enough to phase out the block grant. The income it earns

But Spiermann has seen indications that Copenhagen might not be completely satisfied with the deal.

“In the discussions we’ve been having the past few years, Denmark’s concerns about Greenlandic self-rule, particularly as it relates to uranium and rare earths, give the impression that the law is seen as much more of a problem today than it was 10 years ago (when the discussion started). If the negotiations were to have started today instead, we’d probably see a different outcome.”

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As an example, Spiermann points out that in discussions over whether Nuuk or Copenhagen has control over uranium and rare earths, the Danish parliament has come up with the term “strategic materials”.

Such a term, he said, is not included in the law and runs counter to Greenland being granted the rights to its underground. “But Copenhagen, he said, “feels that some aspects of mining policy are also foreign policy”.

Despite the conflicts over certain details of the Self-Rule Act, Spiermann felt that overall, Greenland had negotiated itself to a good deal that it would have trouble improving on, should either side seek to renegotiate it.

His assessment is one that is commonly held by Greenland watchers in Copenhagen and Nuuk. One of them, Kuupik Kleist, a framer of the law and the premier at the time it was implemented, agreed that Self-Rule Act was good enough, but pointed out that a number of factors had prevented the new relationship from being exploited to its fullest.

“The basic premise of the agreement was that Greenland and Denmark would work together to develop Greenlandic society – politically, economically and democratically – for the mutual benefit of both countries.”

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That, he said, hasn’t happened. “I had expected both sides to show more political will to co-operate in order to live up to the spirit of the law.”

The global economic downturn and domestic political infighting have also hindered Nuuk from doing more to claim additional administrative areas from Copenhagen, but Kliest said that would likely change, and there was no reason to seek to re-open the agreement.

“There will probably come a time when we need to review the arrangement, but for now the most important thing is to come up a with a plan for how we should fully implement self-rule according to the terms of the current agreement. For the time being, there’s plenty for us to do.”

When – or even whether – Greenland would be ready for full independence, was a question, he felt, was best left for a later date.

“There’s no point in setting a date. If we focus too closely on when Greenland could become independent from Denmark would distract us from the tasks he have to work on today.”

Additional reporting for this article was provided by Poul Krarup and Steen Ulkrik Johannessen.