Opinion Articles

“United in Diversity”? - A view from Greenland

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“We should leave the European Community (EC)  if you think the Home Rule government would benefit from it. […]  
We should leave, if you think, we will not have difficulty in selling our products. […]
We should leave if you think we can easily replace seconded manpower with locals in the event of mass emigration.
We should leave if you think we can manage continuing developing at our present pace.
Do you think that, then, the time is now to say ‘goodbye’ to the EC.
It is up to you…. to decide, whether the time is right now.”

The abridged quote above is an editorial piece from the Atuagagdliutit – Grønlandsposten titled “You decide”. Published on February 17th 1982 – the last issue written before the EC referendum on February 23rd - the editorial confronted all the central points and challenges in Greenlandic politics: economy, employment, development and Home Rule.

Home Rule was established less than three years before these words were written, meaning Greenland was a fairly new political entity when it decided to make this important decision. However, Greenland’s pre-existing connection to the EC played its own crucial role in the establishment of Home Rule.

In 1953, Greenland became a fully integrated part of Denmark. In the age of decolonization, the Greenlandic assembly, Landsrådet, chose to follow what Greenlandic politician Augo Lynge described as “the opposite way”. Therefore, when Denmark voted on whether or not to join the EC in October 1972,  Greenlanders voted on equal terms with their Danish cohorts. Although 70.8 % of the Greenlandic population voted “no” for Danish membership of the EC, this did little to change the final result, with 63.4% of the population voting decisively in favor of the membership.

Although, as part of Denmark, Greenland became part of the EC, the referendum triggered the question of  whether Greenlandic affairs and interests were in fact so closely linked to the Danish. This question, could only be posed, if there was an overriding tendency to see Denmark as something “different”, something more or less “foreign”. There were also places in mainland Denmark that had a similar proportion of the population voting “no”, and they of course did not demand Home Rule.

Even before the referendum, certain Greenlandic voices had unsuccessfully suggested that Greenland should stage a separate referendum. After the referendum, however, the demands for a certain degree of Greenlandic independence intensified. A new political generation took the result of the referendum as a sign that the Greenlanders wanted a more “Greenlandic Greenland”. Greenland’s connection to the EC therefore became closely linked to Greenland’s connection to Denmark and whether or not Greenland wanted to follow the same path as Denmark, or should on certain political areas try to find its own way.

Home Rule was established in 1979, and it was as a self-governing Danish province that the new Greenlandic legislative body, Landstinget, decided to hold a referendum on the EC membership in 1982. 53% voted for leaving the EC. Interestingly, divisions within the population with regards to the EC seemed to be closely linked to the party political dividing line. Supporters of the government party Siumut (in English: “Forward”) - which in the struggle for Home Rule had explicitly highlighted Greenlandic divergences from Denmark and the need for a more independent Greenland - largely voted to leave the EC, whereas voters of the main opposition party Atassut (in English: "Cohesion") - which although equally an eager promoter of Home Rule had accentuated downright opposition against further steps towards Greenlandic independence - wanted to stay.  

Therefore, it should be quite clear that national sentiment played a crucial part in this decision. The Greenlandic position towards further independence was, as mentioned, closely linked to its position towards the EC. Those critical of the EC membership were, to a large degree, also those who promoted an ongoing pursuit of further independence and those for whom it was important, not only how the challenges of the country were faced, but also who faced them.

The involvement in a political union, especially with supranational institutions, naturally raises the questions as to whether or not the problems facing an individual country are best met in that union. One could argue that such solutions could be considered illegitimate, since the national government did not make it themselves. If that is so, then participating in the union is undesirable as critics will continuously confuse the criticism of the solutions with the criticism of the union.

At a meeting in Denmark in 1976 Lars Chemnitz, president of Landsrådet, explained the common Greenlandic demand for some degree of self-governance thusly:

“Even if we assume that Denmark had solved the challenges we face  in Greenland perfectly, Denmark would have gotten a similar criticism as at the present, simply because we in Greenland did not make the decision ourselves.”

In 1977, Chemnitz became the first leader of Atassut. He strongly supported the continuous close connection to Denmark and in 1982, he was in favor of continued EC membership. However, one can assume his words also likely reflected the sentiments of the many Greenlanders who chose to leave the EC. It was a quest for strengthening Greenland as a political entity – to consolidate the Greenlandic ‘we’ as a political ‘we’.

In recent years the United Kingdom has, on several occasions, seriously faced the question of who ‘we’ are. In 2015, the Scottish were largely divided on the question of whether or not to remain part of the ‘we’ of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, the centenary anniversary of the Easter Rising has been a reminder of the diverse and divisive interpretations of history within the region. And now, Britons across the country will ask themselves: Can they see themselves as part of the “we” that is the EU? This can be viewed as an opportunity to reform the EU. In this regard, the quest is to find out what the connection to the EU should be in order to be compatible with the present feelings of the British between UK and the EC.

But it can also have remarkably little to do with reform, for if the problem is a voter having a fundamental problem with identifying himself as belonging to the unity that is the EU, it does not matter. Then, the criticism will continue – not as a criticism of the idea of the EU  providing solutions to British problems, but as a criticism of the solutions not being “British”.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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