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The Future of Greenland: Is Greenlandic independence viable?

This voices article explores the niche question of the possibility of Greenlandic independence in the future. Our student contributors have focused on aspects of the issue regarding security, culture and economics.


Greenland is perhaps best described as a geopolitical oddity. As one of the last non-state ‘territories’ left in the world, Greenland historically hasn’t had an extensive amount of self-governance. In 1979, this changed somewhat and Greenland was granted a 31-member Parliament in Nuuk – the capital – to be elected every 4 years (powers were later expanded further in 2009). The current ruling government is made up of two parties (though the Parliament contains a more diverse mix). First is the ‘Inuit Ataqatigiit’ party, an enviromentalist and democratic socialist party which seeks full self-governance for Greenland. The second is the ‘Naleraq’ party, a centrist political party focused on populist appeal and Greenlandic independence. The result suggests that the national mood tilts towards independence at present, and is firmly in favour of emboldening the Greenlandic national majority against the Danish elite. However, as our authors explain, Greenland currently remains heavily reliant on Denmark for political and economic support.

The Parliament is small by global standards, but this reflects Greenland’s tiny population of around 56,000 people across a huge 2,166,000km(squared) territory (about 1/3 the size of Russia). Like Iceland, it has no military itself and instead comes under the protection of NATO. The US under Trump even (perhaps jokingly) attempted to ‘buy’ Greenland. Greenland is a key geopolitical asset in Europe for two main reasons. Firstly, as climate change takes hold it will gain significant access to natural resources locked under the ice. This alternative source of energy and minerals is probably key for maintaining European independence in future. Secondly, Greenland is partly responsible for managing the GIUK sea-gap, a wide swathe of ocean which acts as a naval choke point against Russia. In order to reach the Atlantic Ocean, Russian fleets would either need to pass through the English Channel or the GIUK gap. While never fully utilised before, choking the GIUK gap would probably be a core part of any major anti-Russian sanctions regime or European defensive strategy.

Given these facts, one can understand the strategic importance for the West to maintain the link between Europe, the US and Greenland. Our contributors will explore the potential pathway for Greenland’s independence, with contributors focusing on several different aspects of the debate. Milla and Olli will focus on the funding gap Greenland faces in the event of independence, and the possible path forward in light of potential resource extraction. Malou focuses instead on the security problem Greenland faces as an emerging Arctic power, looking to China as an alternative form of funding for development and maintenance in the region. Finally, Dan examines the need to diversify Denmark’s traditional industries and fuse cultural and economic revitalisation to successfully break-away.

Public Finances and Resource Extraction

Olli McIntyre, MSc History of International Relations.

Greenland is currently dependent upon Denmark for its economy and public services to function, and this reliance is the crux that pulls the feasibility of Greenlandic Independence into a harsh reality check. A municipality on the Danish mainland with a similar population would be unsustainable if it needed the more than 20 schools, 2 universities, 3 hospitals, 13 airports and 10 ports that Greenland currently has to operate in order to provide basic public services across a vast 2.16 million km(squared) region. Greenland is only able to provide these otherwise unaffordable public services, due to annual Danish subsidies amounting to 3.6 billion Danish Kroner (DKK). This is equivalent to 50% of Greenlandic state revenues and a quarter of its GDP alone. Furthermore, the total annual cost of independence is estimated to be at 5 billion DKK or 90,000 DKK per citizen. Therefore, independence would currently entail an unpalatable combination of drastic tax hikes and crippling austerity.

However, Greenland possesses an estimated 11% of the Arctics oil and gas reserves, as well as a wealth of rare-earth elements which could – theoretically – offer a viable path to independence. The Greenland Geological Survey projected in 2014 that mining has the potential to inject the Greenlandic economy with 30 billion DKK over the next 15 years. It further stated that oil and gas could pump a further 435 billion DKK into the economy over the next 40 years. However, developing this economic potential will spoil one of the last pristine wildernesses in the world. This has produced tangible sociopolitical anxiety across the country. This alarm is highlighted by the Kvanefjeld project, a plan to mine the largest deposit of rare-earth oxides outside of China. The mine’s construction was halted when the Inuit Ataqatigiit party comfortably won the most votes in the 2021 Greenlandic general election. This momentous victory rested on a platform pledging to halt the Kvanefjeld mining project, due to fears of potential environmental contamination.

This has cast the idea of Greenland mining its way towards independence into doubt. This result suggests that Greenlandic voters are less keen on sovereignty and more keen on protecting indigenous and environmental concerns. According to a joint report from Nuuk and Copenhagen University, Greenland would require at least 24 major mines working simultaneously to make up for the loss of Danish funding, in the case of Independence. Therefore, since the Kvanefjeld mining project has proven to be too controversial for Greenlanders in the polls, it is likely that 24 similar projects would meet the same backlash. The public backlash towards mining in Greenland is in conflict with the harsh reality that Greenlandic independence is not currently feasible, without extensive resource extraction. Therefore, any independence movement that hopes to seriously govern is at an impasse.

The Culture-Economy Trade-off

Milla Gajdos, 2nd year BSc International Relations and Chinese.

This year marks the 13th year since parliamentary independence was granted to Greenland, a country where 2 out of 3 people want to free themselves from the remnants of Danish colonial rule (1). The question is not whether they want independence or not, but rather when. 90% of Greenland’s citizens are people of Inuit origin, and the population undeniably has a common culture, identity, and a history of resisting Danish dominance. However, it is highly questionable whether the country could stand on its own two feet without relying on the more than $600,000,000 (USD) that the Danish government provides to Greenland on an annual basis. These subsidies make up approximately 50% of state revenues. Furthermore, climate change continues to impact Greenland in a dramatic way they likely can’t respond to alone, with glaciers melting and temperatures rising at an incredible speed.

In these circumstances, one of the ways to reach a semblance of economic independence seems to be extracting the vast oil, gas and mineral resources that lie under the melting ice. Although most citizens are saddened to see their country changing at an unprecedented speed, there are those who believe climate change will guide it towards independence by drawing more attention to Greenland’s prospects as a resource superpower (1). Amongst others, fishermen also experienced a significant uptick in sales, in both these ways it seems environmental change also potentially comes with economic benefits for the country despite its broader implications for global climate change. However, part of the case for independence is Inuit identity and culture which has arguably evolved with the cold climate, in a world of ice and snow. While exporting extracted resources and increased fish hauls might make the country economically more sustainable, it would also significantly disrupt cultural and economic norms in Inuit society. Evidence of this is the indigenous resistance that has developed to oppose resource extraction in Greenland. This is based on the concerns about threats to the viability of the community, human health, wildlife and to entire ecosystems, as well as potential biohazards and environmental crises by certain types of resource extraction.

Greenland faces a difficult choice. Full autonomy will require economic independence, which cannot be accomplished without a certain level of economic modernisation. But will integration into the global economy lead to the slow eradication of Greenland’s indigenous cultural heritage? If yes, is it preferable to stay under Danish protection? The public consensus to this question clearly seems to be no. Nevertheless, this eventually raises the question if Inuit identity and culture can be upheld all whilst enduring changing environmental, economic, and societal conditions, and in the face of an increasing superpower competition over the Arctic.

Should Denmark embrace the Icelandic model of independence?

Malou van Draanen Glismann, 2nd year BSc International Relations and Chinese.

Currently, Nuuk is focused on gradually expanding policy independence while remaining dependent on Copenhagen for investment, foreign policy and military protection.

However, Denmark is increasingly facing a legitimacy crisis as a security authority, as it increasingly depends on the US to provide military protection vis-à-vis Russia. Nonetheless, as Copenhagen regards Greenland’s independence as eventually inevitable, it has renewed its push to maintain influence on the territory through security means. This is evident in recent surges in Danish infrastructure investment by equipping Greenland's airports to facilitate international travel, by citing security concerns over possible Greenlandic collaboration with the China Com­munications Construction Company (CCCC), which is known to carry out projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative. Similar reasoning is behind Copenhagen granting Greenland a more autonomous role within the Arctic Council, thus tacitly recognizing its growing role as a foreign policy actor. Independence within a Danish framework would mean maintaining the benefits of the Danish development grant. However, in this case, Nuuk’s ability to diversify development funding from countries Copenhagen deems a security risk (such as China) could be severely restricted.

The alternative to continued collaboration with Denmark could resemble Icelandic independence, an option the more hardline pro-independence factions endorse. Iceland, which also does not possess a military, seceded from Denmark in 1944 and has been under NATO protection while maintaining its sovereignty. This raises the question over whether Greenland can find an arrangement that does not infringe on its sovereignty while guaranteeing its security in a situation where Arctic competition is heating up. US strategic interest in Greenland has grown due to rising tensions with Russia and China: therefore, US-led NATO protection appears a viable option. The Biden administration's current efforts to expand economic and security ties signal US willingness on this front. However, even the pro-independence hardliners caution this pathway could demand a greater ceding of autonomy in future. Its stance on Chinese investment will undoubtedly be less flexible than Copenhagen’s, and there is no concrete promise of US investments increasing.

Overall, from a security perspective, eventual independence of Greenland within a Danish security framework and as a semi-independent member of NATO is possible and likely beneficial. Remaining for now within Denmark’s political framework would allow Nuuk to retain a comfortable international standing while also developing a new independent foreign policy identity in its own right.

Cultural Hegemony and the need for Economic Transformation

Dan Barnett, 1st year, BSc Politics and International Relations

There is arguably a moral case for Greenlandic Independence, however, it is difficult to achieve under current conditions. Denmark has taken recent steps towards Greenlandic political self-rule despite its historical antipathy to do so. However, the continued dominance of Denmark over Greenland’s society and economy makes the prospect of independence much more difficult. This is namely by the need to substitute the provision of €470 million a year from the Danish state for development which currently forms a large part of domestic spending.

Reforms such as fiscal empowerment of the Greenlandic government could be an alternative to outright independence. Increasing economic self-sufficiency by expanding resource extraction would be one way of achieving this. However, Greenlandic politicians have not wholly committed to this attitude, and traditional hunting and fishing are considered the current and future economic basis of the country’s economy with 10% of the workforce being involved in the industry. Traditional hunting/fishing practices are unfortunately incompatible with resource extraction because of the environmental damage that would ensue. Therefore, an alternative route to economic self-sufficiency must be sought, one which doesn’t infringe on Greenlandic cultural industries.

The challenge of achieving self-autonomy from Denmark cannot be overstated. In the 1960s, factory fishing became the island’s main economic activity, meaning many indigenous hunters took a place in a factory, rather than a kayak. Indigenous practices were usurped to benefit Danish interests. In 1965, 52% of Greenland’s income went to the pockets of the 11% of the population born outside of it (Brøsted, 1977, p. 78) with this disparity growing ever since. This ‘enforced modernisation’ ( Greenland Committee , 2020, p. 48) also took root in the capital Nuuk where the Inuit population were encouraged to adopt Danish culture and language. Without a knowledge of Danish, it is difficult to go beyond a high school diploma in Greenland’s educational system. Overall, the cultural and economic dominance of Greenland has resulted in a hierarchy of culture. The use of Danish society as a blueprint to westernise Greenland has caused its own problems, including delayed action on tackling suicide rates and life expectancy in Greenland being lower (71 years) than in Denmark (81 years).

The cultural and economic ties between the Greenlandic and Danish societies ultimately mean independence cannot be achieved overnight. If independence is pursued, Greenland would have to find a way to revitalise their unique culture and economy to reduce reliance on Denmark as a whole. Rolling back Danish cultural colonialism may also be useful to advancing the economic prospects of citizens, especially in affirming the right to access education in Greenlandic language, and not just Danish.

Sources not available online

Milla’s Sources:

(1) Paul, Michael (2021) Ambitions and Prospects after 300 Years with the Kingdom of Denmark. Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

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