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Increasingly independent, diplomatically speaking

Even though its foreign affairs remain controlled by Denmark, Greenland is losing no time in developing its own diplomatic contacts
Hammond leaves no doubt about her aspirations, irritating or not

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As the leader of Greenland’s self-rule government, Aleqa Hammond has two portfolios. The first is that of premier, putting her in charge of the country’s domestic affairs. The second is that of foreign minister.

With her country’s foreign relations still – officially – controlled by Copenhagen, the latter ought to be a quiet job. It has been anything but.

That is a fact that is a thorn in the side of many, both at home in Nuuk, where opponents say she’s more interested in foreign affairs than the everyday concerns of her voters, and down south, in the Danish capital, where she’s accused of overstepping her authority as part of a separatist agenda.

But Greenland’s foreign policy, it can be argued, is its mining policy. And with economic development contingent on finding foreign investors to help get oil, gas and minerals out of the ground, it is no wonder that Hammond has been an actively seeking to develop her country’s foreign relations.

Still, it would be an oversimplification to say that money is her only motivation.

Securing the near abroad
This December, Hammond and Kaj Leo Johannesen, the premier of the Faroe Islands, also a self-governing member of the Danish Kingdom, used their first official meeting as leaders of their countries to announce that they had agreed to work closer together in areas of common interest, including the work of the Arctic Council, fishing and seal hunting.

Hammond and Johannesen also said they would work closer together on issues within the kingdom, announcing that they would hold annual summits, as well as increase contact between the two countries’ civil services.

The reason for the closer relations, Johannesen said, was because “the Faroes and Greenland have the same challenges in a number areas. Closer co-opeation will benefit both countries. Greenland has caught the attention of other countries, and working closer together will open a number of doors, not least for our businesses.”

Both, though, have in the past expressed frustration with their relationship to Copenhagen, which still decides over a number of Greenlandic and Faroese policy areas. The frustrations flared up most recently during discussions over whether Copenhagen had the right to control export of uranium from Greenland.

Both working together could help the kingdom’s two junior members form a common front not just against Copenhagen. Hammond and Johannesen also discussed relations with the EU during their December meeting. In addition to a long-term conflict with Brussels over whaling rights, the two countries have butted heads in recent years with the EU over issues of national concern: in Greenland’s case seal hunting, for the Faroes fishing quotas.

The Faroes have their own representative offices abroad – in London, Reykjavik, Brussels and soon in Moscow – where it plies its interests separate of Copenhagen. Nuuk is perhaps taking its queue from Torshavn as it opens an office in Washington, but during an interview with Faroese TV Hammond said doing so was more than just a way to show that the country was open for business.

“I think that it brings Greenland out into the world and into the international community and says that people can approach us. That, I feel, is the first step towards becoming a society that would like to be more independent.”

All politics is local
Perhaps one of the most important foreign policy decisions made in Greenland in recent years was actually a domestic issue: parliament’s decision in November to overturn the country’s ban on uranium mining.

But while that discussion initially began as something of a health and environmental issue: whether mining outfits should be able to extract uranium while mining for something else – most notably rare earth elements – proponents, including Hammond, were soon talking about ending the ban in economic terms.

Speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik in October Hammond said Greenland had the potential to become the world’s fifth-largest exporter of the radioactive metal. The statement caused a stir both at home and abroad, since parliament had yet to vote on whether to overturn the ban. But while the audience heard her say Greenland say “would” become a major exporter, Hammond later said she meant to say “could” – if the ban were lifted.

SEE RELATED: Greenlanders splitting words over premier’s uranium comments

The linguistic gaffe might have been part of reason why no-one quite knew what to make of her comment when she, during the Nordic Council annual session in Helsinki later in October, told the Finnish hosts that they were welcome to buy Greenlandic uranium for their nuclear reactors.

Climate of growth
When it comes to energy and climate, Hammond has also sought to position Greenland among the countries working to secure a wide-ranging agreement during the 2015 UN climate conference.

Speaking before the Halifax International Security Forum in November, she explained that her country’s position is that Arctic countries have a responsibility to work towards reduced fossil fuel use and “increased use of renewable Arctic energy”.

According to her government that means exporting hydroelectric power to North America. Just as the country also hopes it can become a major exporter of clean water.

SEE RELATED: Arctic security forum now online

That water will be in the form of meltwater taken from the island’s glaciers, and it was perhaps with the popular image of a melting Greenland in mind that she told attendees at the Halifax conference that climate change was both a problem as well as an opportunity for her country.

Hunters and fishermen, for example, will have to find ways to adapt to a warmer climate, she admitted, but on the other hand the retreating ice makes it easier to exploit mineral and oil resources.

But while climate change might make these mineral riches might be easier to get at, it will take good relations with other countries to get them to market.

“Greenland’s development,” Hammond said, “is going to have to happen as part of international partnerships.”

Those partnerships, she said, could include the US and Canada ensuring best-practices were abided by during uranium mining. Norway is being looked to as an oil exploration partner. Australian firms are leading the search for other minerals on land. And the Chinese could wind up doing much of the hard labour.

If this be foreign policy
While Greenland is going it alone in a number of areas at home, Hammond said she sees the Arctic Council as the proper forum for coming to agreements on regional issues. Deals to ensure that Arctic countries work together on search and rescue and oil-spill response have already been struck, but Hammond would also like to see agreements about maritime safety, monitoring and mapping. All of which, she underscored, had the ultimate goal of protecting the environment.

Hammond’s assertive foreign policy has garnered much attention, but it is not new. Her predecessor, Kuupik Kliest, who she defeated in last year’s general election, made the call to open the Washington office and travelled widely abroad, including to South Korea, which, like China, has expressed interest in the country’s minerals for its industrial production.

Hammond has made sure that Asia remains on the foreign policy radar: the next representative office may open in Beijing, while Japanese firms will get a closer look at opportunities in Greenland when a delegation from Nuuk heads there at the end of the year.

SEE RELATED: Go east. Far east

If the nuts and bolts of Greenland’s foreign policy are about mining, its purpose, in Hammond’s vision, is to wean the country off the 3.5 billion kroner ($640 million) annual block grant it gets from Copenhagen. She makes bones about what her motivation is.

“I think and act as the leader of an independent country,” Hammond told Danish daily Information last year. “I am engaged in nation-building and a whole list of other things. People are increasingly in favour of independence.”

And while her own repeated comments about Greenland’s independence, might be a source of irritation for southern lawmakers, she said there’s a reason behind it.

“I don’t talk about independence in order to create divisions between Greenland and Denmark. I talk about independence so no-one has any doubt about the direction we are headed in. If Greenland’s ideas about independence are to become a reality, it will be the responsibility of Denmark and Greenland, as members of the Kingdom of Denmark, to make it happen.”

In order for independence to happen, Greenland will require a good mineral policy. Once it happens, the country will need practised diplomats. Both, Hammond has made sure, are in the works.