Arctic Temperatures and Greenland Politics Heat Up

Climate scientists have been surprised by the sudden and unusual rise of Arctic temperatures this winter. Arctic political watchers were equally taken by surprise this week when, on March 5, Greenlandic premier Kim Kielsen called a snap election to be held on April 24. Surprising Greenlanders and even members of parliament from Kielsen’s own party, what was his motivation and why now?

Why is this election important to the United States? Because Greenland plays a vital role in U.S. defense. The Thule Air Base in Northwestern Greenland, less than 1,000 miles from the North Pole, is the United States’ most northern base, and its radar installations make up an important early warning node for the U.S. missile defense system. Greenland-based airports and ports can become crucial support points for maritime and air patrols in the North Atlantic, while underwater submarine detection systems can be placed along the coast.

But first, a quick political primer on Greenland. Since 1979, Greenland has been an autonomous region within the Kingdom of Denmark with extensive self-rule. The government in the capital, Nuuk, controls several policy areas, including immigration, fisheries, education, and resource policy, while other areas, most importantly foreign, defense, and security policy, remain within Copenhagen’s purview. Unlike Denmark proper, Greenland is not a member of the European Union. The Self-Rule Act of 2009 expanded Greenland’s autonomy, giving it a roadmap to independence where it can increasingly take control over policy areas insofar as its economy allows.

Today, Greenland remains highly dependent on direct economic support from Denmark of around 3.7 billion Danish kroner (USD 613 million per year) and services, which make up roughly a third of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to the Economic Council of Greenland, Greenland’s economy will become steadily more unbalanced in coming decades with annual budget deficits of more than 5 percent of GDP even with support from Denmark. Therefore, although independence from Denmark is popular with most of Greenland’s 58,000 inhabitants (88 percent have either an Inuit or mixed Inuit background, 12 percent of the population are Danes or other Europeans) and is favored by all parties in the 31-seat parliament, the economic numbers simply do not add up to allow for independence in the short to medium term. But the numbers may begin to change. As with so many others, the Greenlandic authorities increasingly look to China for significant investments in the country, particularly its stagnant minerals sector. In 2015, General Nice, a Hong Kong mining firm, announced plans to develop a $2 billion iron ore mine, while in September 2016, Shenghe Resources purchased a stake in Greenland Minerals and Energy, seeking to develop rare earth minerals. These investments—although not yet fully realized—can boost Beijing’s status as a preferred economic provider in Greenland, minimizing both the Danish and U.S. position. This perception was further amplified by a 2014 decision by the U.S. Air Force to award the Thule base maintenance contract to Exelis Services, a Danish subsidiary of U.S. company Vectrus, which was a large blow to the Greenlandic economy (Greenland co-owns the company that previously held the contract). Denmark and Greenland argue that Exelis is only a shell company and therefore not eligible to win the contract, which can only be awarded to a Danish-Greenlandic company according to the existing defense agreement. The three countries continue to negotiate to find a solution to the issue.

Against this backdrop, Greenland’s parties approach independence, its relationship with Copenhagen and Washington, as well as with Beijing, differently. Mr. Kielsen’s nationalist Siumut (Forward) party has historically been a force for independence, although he personally represents its moderate wing, and he has been hesitant to issue public demands to Copenhagen and Washington. He faces challenges from both sides of the political spectrum. From the left, Inuit Ataqatigiit (the Community of Inuits) or IA, a more pro-Danish, Green party that has traditionally been Siumut’s main challenger, seeks the premiership. Siumut and IA have governed together in a grand coalition since 2016, and the IA leadership shares Mr. Kielsen’s pragmatism when it comes to the relationship with Denmark and the United States. Consequently, an IA victory is unlikely to have major foreign policy implications.

From the right, several minor, radical nationalist parties try to paint Mr. Kielsen as a Danish puppet who has failed to push Greenland’s advantages vis-à-vis Denmark and the United States. The big unknown is the recently formed Nunatta Qitornai (the Descendants of Our Land) party, led by Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a former foreign minister who left Siumut after a failed leadership challenge last year. The bullish Mr. Qujaukitsoq blames many of Greenland’s problems on Denmark and the United States. As foreign minister, he filed an official complaint with the UN Human Rights Council over Denmark’s treatment of the Inuit regarding issues related to the U.S. military presence. Mr. Qujaukitsoq has threatened to terminate Denmark and the United States’ presence on Greenland. Unfortunately, there are no reliable opinion polls to judge the strength of Nunatta Qitornai, but the timing of the snap election is particularly challenging, as the party has yet to fulfill the requirements necessary to be on the ballot.

But a lack of polling could also offer a political surprise: an outcome that would greatly complicate the U.S. position in Greenland, as well as Danish-Greenlandic relations, as much as a rapidly thawing Greenlandic ice sheet is complicating global sea levels.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen is a former visiting fellow with the CSIS Europe Program and an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College in Copenhagen.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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