Thursday May 25, 2017

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The View from Copenhagen

Reform, reform, reform

The most important word for Greenland lawmakers has long been ‘independence’. Few, however, are willing to utter the word that must necessarily precede it
Are there any reformers in the house?

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Most of us with a connection to Greenland will probably remember the awkward moment that arose back in 2009 during the signing of the Self-Rule Agreement with Denmark. A jubilant Hans Enoksen, the premier at the time, and Jonathan Motzfeldt, the first premier of Greenland, broke into a sort of dance, while, sandwiched between them, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister at the time, looked on, rather confused.

What had two of modern Greenland’s founding fathers dancing with delight was, of course, the fact that Greenland had taken another step towards independence from Copenhagen. And this time, there was something specific they could build their hopes on: the underground. The agreement gave Greenland authority over its underground resources, and despite the looming economic downturn, there seemed to be no lack of interest in oil and mineral resource exploration. The agreement also gave Greenland the right to overtake responsibility for nearly all areas of public administration, including the legal system (but not defence or foreign policy). On top of that, they were given the right to decide, whenever they felt like it, whether they wanted to be independent. And, what’s more, they would be permitted to retain their annual block grant from Copenhagen until the day the officially seceded from the Kingdom of Denmark.

Alas! Nearly six years on, the situation looks a lot less rosy. Mining, oil drilling and the so-called large-scale projects in general, have either been put on hold or cancelled entirely. With the exception of underground rights, Nuuk has assumed no further administrative powers from Copenhagen. The state of the economy is so bad that the Economic Council, the nation’s leading panel of economic advisors, warns that disaster is imminent unless radical reforms are made without delay. Emigration is at historically high levels, primarily (and most worryingly) among the well-educated. Unemployment is record high, the population is ageing, tax receipts are declining and neither Naalakkersuisut (the government) nor Inatsisartut (the legislature) have had the will or the skill to implement the necessary reforms.

Amidst all this economic pessimism, the unabated optimism about independence, self-subsistence and internationalisation continues apace.

The blame for both can be laid primarily at the feet of the political leadership. But, in this case, that’s actually positive, since it is a sign that something can be done. Naalakkersuisut has no power over international commodities markets, nor does it influence fish prices, or even what young people decide to do with their lives and where they want to live. But, it does have the power to do a lot of other things that could help the situation.

In its report, the Economic Council pointed out a number of areas in which reform was necessary, including housing and urban development.

My personal recommendation is that Greenland’s next government should focus on strengthening the private sector. Economic development should be driven by businesspeople, not lawmakers. The public sector, proportionally the largest of any country in the world, needs to shrink, and to make it possible for people to run businesses without expecting that lawmakers will give them a hand. People need to start businesses because they want to, and because they have a knack for making money. There is no shortage of people in Greenland who can do this, but they are prevented from doing so by a byzantine administration that fosters a culture of clientelism.

Greenland is not wrong to dream of representing itself abroad. I would, in fact, argue it must do this. But, that is not the same as saying that the premier should spend all her time abroad opening representative offices or holding speeches that glorify Greenland’s potential. Other cabinet members should also spend more of their time at home (even if trips to the Olympics and other high-level conferences are, occasionally, relevant).

No, in this case, what it takes is giving young people a good, internationally oriented, education. Teach them to speak foreign languages so they can work and study abroad and experience what life is like without the security blanket Greenland provides them. They must learn things that can be used for something other than public-sector jobs.

We need a few good Greenlandic lawmakers that dare to stand up and say this. We need them to let go of the nationalistic rhetoric that is not dissimilar to the wave of populism washing over Europe. They must set goals that will allow Greenland to attain a level of development that will raise people’s living standards to those enjoyed by other countries.

If that happens, then, and only then, can we start talking about independence. Maybe next month’s election will be a small step in the right direction.

The author is a Danish barrister and a columnist for Sermtisiaq newspaper, which is owned by this website’s parent company.