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Denmark, Greenland in “crisis” over US bases

Nuuk is not satisfied with the effort Copenhagen is putting in to lobby Washington to address its concerns related to two military installations
If backdrops could kill (Photo: Leiff Josefsen)

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Even on a good day, the relationship between Copenhagen and Nuuk can be a strained one. Yesterday was not a good day.

Take, for example, the revelation that Greenland has threatened to ask the UN to intervene on its behalf to force Denmark to assume responsibility for cleaning up pollution at Camp Century, a disused US military installation built into the ice cap in the 1950s and now, according to scientists, threatening to release large amounts of PCBs, a cancer-causing agent.

According to Politiken, a Danish news outlet, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s foreign minister, sent a letter on October 24 to the Danish foreign ministry accusing the Danes of foot-dragging on the matter, and warned it would ask for help from “relevant international organisations” if Copenhagen did not get the lead out.

SEE RELATED: Nuuk to demand that Danes clean up US pollution

Which organisations are not specified, but in a widely-published opinion piece published in October, Mr Qujaukitsoq (pictured, above right) publicly called on Copenhagen to either clean up the base itself or get Washington to do it. In it, he mentions a UN convention, ratified by Denmark, governing the rights of indigenous peoples.

After testifying to the Folketing, the Danish national assembly, last week that Copenhagen was “taking the matter seriously”, Kristian Jensen, the foreign minister, travelled to Nuuk yesterday to explain to Mr Qujaukitsoq that, before Copenhagen could do anything, it needed in investigate the extent of the pollution further.

Mr Qujaukitsoq later described the meeting as “a frank” and “on-going discussion”, but also made it clear that he considered the situation to a “crisis” that could go even further downhill.

Whether it does depends to a large degree on whether a solution could be found to a second, more pressing, base issue. In 2014, Greenland Contractors, a Greenland-owned firm, lost a contract to provide maintenance service at Thule Air Base, a US installation in far northern Greenland and referred to by Greenlanders as Pituffik, the name of the Inuit village that was demolished in order to build the installation.

SEE RELATED: Danes suggest Greenland must clean up US pollution

The contract went to Exelis Services, a Copenhagen-based firm Nuuk says is ultimately controlled by an American company. If this is the case, it would violate the terms of the 1951 agreement giving the US permission to use land in Greenland for bases, free of charge.

Nuuk calculates losing the contract will cost the country 150 million kroner ($21 million) in lost jobs, tax revenue and job-training, an amount that is significant enough that Kim Kielsen, the premier, brought up the matter in his letter of congratulations to Donald Trump, who will become America’s next president on January 20.

Mr Jensen (pictured, above left) agrees with Nuuk’s position that contract should go to a firm that ensures the largest-possible benefit to Greenland, but he reminded his hosts yesterday that a US court, on June 24, had ruled against Greenland Contractors and other firms involved in the tender that had appealed the decision to award the contract to Exelis Services.

Mr Jensen agreed to bring the matter up with Washington again, and to do so before the Trump administration took office, but he cautioned against expecting much. The prospects of changing the decision have always been slim. Once Mr Trump is in the White House, Copenhagen expects the will likely be none.

“At this point, we need to accept that we, in all probability, have no more options,” he said.

SEE RELATED: Not in our backyard anymore

While expressing both disappointment over the court decision, and admitting that the disputes over the bases had strained the relationship between Nuuk and Copenhagen, Mr Jensen also made it clear that the issue was not big enough for Copenhagen to seek to renegotiate the terms its defence deal with Washington.

Instead, he repeated his government’s position that the guarantee of security offered Denmark and Greenland by allowing the Americans to have a base at Pituffik is payment in and of itself.

Unfortunately for Nuuk, that is not a guarantee it can take to the bank.