Opinion Articles


The power of the popular referendum - the case of Greenland


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With the result of the referendum on June 23rd, the United Kingdom initiated a process which will make it the second country to leave the European Union. It can be argued that the cases of Grexit in 1985 and Brexit today are not of the same magnitude, since Greenland remained connected to the European community through its dependency on Denmark. The UK is in a position where the entire relationship with the European Union has to be redefined. On the other hand, a number of members of the EU will have an interest in establishing a close relationship with the UK – a position Greenland was not in.

Formally, the process has not actually begun. The British constitution does not recognise binding referendums, and thus, the referendum formally was advisory. However, we might infer from the Greenlandic example – as from the experience of European development over the last century – that this formality is of little consequence. The Danish constitution of 1953 also does not recognise binding referendums for parts of the realm, and thus, the referendum of 1982 was formally advisory. However, then as now, any questioning or re-interpretation of the result is likely to be considered a neglect of the will of the people. Thus, in Greenland, the politicians who had been in favour of continuous membership at no point tried to sabotage the process nor cause the government to neglect the decision.  

The government of United Kingdom is unlikely to act in any other way. This makes the British decision irreversible and thereby, it also makes the division of the people – or rather peoples – of the realm visible and politically potent. Greenland had entered the EEC in 1973 despite a 70% vote against membership, since 63% of the population voted in favour across the whole Danish realm. This intensified the discussion around Greenlandic Home Rule. The referendum and its consequences highlighted a contrast between Greenland and Denmark, which had to, in the Greenlandic politician Moses Olsen’s words, “sooner or later lead to political consequences”. Had the referendum never happened, the opposition between internal national interests within the Danish realm would have remained a subject of speculation.

This is a direct, however opposite, parallel to the situation in the UK after the referendum. The discussion was not around whether the Greenlander had a distinct national identity from the Dane. That was popularly recognized. What was problematized in the wake of the first referendum in 1972 was whether the different national interests were compatible in the structure of the realm. Since the decolonization of 1953, Greenland had been an integrated part of Denmark and thus without formal political autonomy. The referendum sparked the consideration of Greenland as a separate political entity with political autonomy to some degree.

The result of the UK referendum has sparked a similar debate in Scotland. The 2014 referendum of Scottish independence had already demonstrated that country’s division on the issue, thus rendering the link between Scotland and the United Kingdom vulnerable. The fact that Scotland as a whole voted Remain while England and Wales backed Leave has heightened this vulnerability and given added impetus to the voices calling for Scottish independence.

On the other hand, the fact that Wales favoured leaving the EU makes it less plausible that currently weak Welsh nationalism will strengthen. Welsh nationalists have tried to spark a debate for independence, warning that the England-Wales entity will end up being too small to stay outside the EU if Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom. However, it seems rather more likely that the referendum result will strengthen the unity of England and Wales.

A more complicated case is Gibraltar. On the rock, 96 % of the citizens voted for staying in the EU, and the exit will have considerable significance for the border with Spain. In the official Gibraltarian view, it seems that they expect little short of a siege from Spain in order to get sovereignty. If Gibraltar had a strong national movement, it would probably have triggered a discussion similar to the one in Scotland, but since a large part of Gibraltarian identity is connected to their status as British subjects, the situation is very different. Gibraltar has been eager to get the British government to clarify that sole British sovereignty will not be compromised without the assent of the Gibraltarians

The Greenlandic case shows that referendums on the European community are a national issue in more senses than one. They reflect not only on the problematic connection between the nation and a supranational entity, but also on divisions in the electorate, and if these divisions can be linked to different national interests, they will internally open the question of nationality. And this outcome of the referendum is irreversible.

The Danish Realm is not the only example of a state with dependent lands not being part of the EU. It will, however, be a novelty if the dependent elements of the United Kingdom remain part of the EU, while the core leaves – what we could call ‘an opposite Greenland’. However, at present it seems that the lesson arising from the referendum has not been only about the EU, but about the connection between the different parts of the UK. This is similar to what happened in Greenland in the 1970’s, however in the British case it is much more radical – it deals not only with the question of a different construction or composition of the UK, but with the question of the validity of the UK itself.    

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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