Historically, Danish decisions have not always put Greenlandic interests first. Although defence policy is formally under Danish jurisdiction, decisions only have the legitimacy necessary if Greenland participates in the decision-making processes. Because, in Greenland, military activities and installations interfere intimately with civilian activities.
By Sara Olsvig and Ulrik Pram Gad
Increased rivalry between the great powers in the Arctic produces challenging issues for the constitutional community consisting of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark. Denmark and Greenland must make the role they each want to play in the international community clear and rethink the responsibilities and co-ordination procedures of the community. Otherwise, Greenland and Denmark risk contributing to increased tension in the Arctic — and Greenland risks missing out on potential gains from the growing attention from the great powers.
Denmark can no longer rule alone
In February 2021, six Danish politicians, led by the Minister of Defence, presented an extension of the existing multi-annual defence spending agreement dubbed the ‘Arctic Capacity Package’ of 1.5 billion kroner (€200 million). The core budget elements came as a response to the US demand for better airspace surveillance over Greenland and the North Atlantic. Hence, the budget was meant as a signal that Denmark makes an effort to live up to its responsibilities in the Arctic. Moreover, a new program for military training based in Greenland was on the drawing board.
• Greenland should develop foreign-policy strategies that address the dilemmas arising from the great powers’ increased focus on the Arctic in general and Greenland in particular.
• Denmark should get used to the fact that Greenland has its own considerations, interests and positions in defence and security policy.
• Danish parliamentary multi-annual defence-spending agreements should be based on real, equal and respectful involvement of the parliament and government of Greenland
• The parliament and government of Greenland must develop more knowledge and capacity relating to security and defence policy.
If one refers exclusively to the provisions of the Danish constitution and the Act on Greenland Self-Government one may get the impression that the Folketing and the Danish government are free to dispose in such matters. However, that is not the case in practice. Hence, the text of the agreement states how: “Political support from the Faroe Islands and Greenland to the radars and planned construction work is of key importance. The Danish Ministry of Defence has a close dialogue with the Faroe Islands and Greenland and looks forward to their responses and a continued close co-operation.”
Nevertheless, shortly after the publication of the Arctic Capacity Package, both Faroese and Greenlandic parliamentarians proclaimed that the two parliaments had not been adequately involved in the deliberations on the package. Following the April 2021 parliamentary election in Greenland, the newly formed government of Greenland made it clear that the contents of the package need to undergo a close scrutiny before Greenland potentially decides to approve.
Greenland must come off the fence
In Greenland, defence policy is closely intertwined with wider societal development. As part of the current distribution of responsibilities, the Danish armed forces handle tasks that are crucial for civilian activities in Greenland — including parts of the fisheries inspections as well as search and rescue. Moreover, existing and planned military infrastructure interferes with the Self-Government’s plans for civilian infrastructure. A series of earlier Danish decisions and cover-ups in defence matters lures in the background: forced relocation of civilian population to make room for expanding the Thule Air Base, Danish acceptance of US nuclear weapons in Greenland and pollution from military sites.
With these experiences in mind, it appears unsustainable for Greenlandic politicians not to get involved in defence policy, just as it is unsustainable for Denmark to deny Greenland insight and involvement. Hence, over the years, standard procedures have been formalised to ensure that Denmark does not make decisions without the involvement of Greenland. Most recently, a new co-ordination committee involving the governments of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark has been established, chaired by the Danish prime minister.
However, the underlying logic guiding these procedures and practices is that initiative and interests originate from either Copenhagen or Washington. Greenland’s role has so far mainly been responsive (most often accepting US and Danish initiatives). Correspondingly, the procedures have a hard time accommodating the way Greenland is increasingly acting on a strong desire to determine its own position both in the Arctic and globally.
Greenland’s increased self-awareness makes it both natural and necessary for it to take a stand in relation to military presence on its territory. This was expressed after the 2021 election in the government coalition agreement. If Denmark is to lend credibility to the constitutional community with Greenland by living up to the preamble of the Self-Government Act and “foster equality and mutual respect” to, it needs to take seriously that Greenland is formulating its own interests — also when it comes to defence policy.
Excerpts from the coalition agreement
‘Solidarity, stability, growth
Inuit Ataqatigiit and Naleraq, April 2021
“The coalition will work to ensure that Greenland appears increasingly independent on the foreign-policy scene.”
“Based on Greenland’s geographical location in the Arctic, we will demand greater influence on defence policy. We want to emphasise that Greenland must be demilitarised, and that nothing should happen about us without us.”
(translated from the Danish version)
Danish parliamentary traditions leave out Greenland
Making law in the Danish parliament is basically about counting a majority of 90. When it comes to core societal institutions — as the armed forces — a tradition has developed to make them solid over time by ensuring broader parliamentary majorities. The case of the Arctic Capacity Package illustrates that, if such agreements should be sustainable, not just across Danish parliamentary elections but also across the North Atlantic, the participation of the Greenlandic and Faroese political systems must be enhanced, and their approval ensured at an earlier stage.
Over the years, the government of Denmark has indeed discussed some of the elements of the capacity package with changing Greenlandic ministers. However, the involvement appears to have been ad hoc — and the policy-making process has neither been transparent nor binding in relation to the parliament of Greenland.
This is due to the fact that the government of Greenland is not legally obliged to involve its parliament in the same way the government of Denmark has to involve the Danish parliament in matters of foreign and security policy. While this legislative lack of obligation might be considered a domestic issue for Greenlandic democracy, the fate of the Arctic Capacity Package shows that it also challenges the sustainability of Danish defence policy. And if it is not possible to make lasting contributions to common security and defence issues, it may challenge both Greenland’s and Denmark’s legitimacy as alliance partners. Ultimately, this uncertainty may contribute to increased security tensions in the Arctic.
Greenland should make its own strategies
Denmark must get used to the fact that Greenland has distinct interests in relation to the great powers. Only on this basis, will it be possible for Denmark and Greenland to find lasting ways of co-operating that can accommodate differences and bring them closer together when necessary.
As the world powers’ focus on the Arctic increases, decisions concerning Greenland will inevitably be made. Denmark is slowly learning that not involving Greenland thoroughly only creates problems. If Greenland wants to have the most influence, it requires clear strategies that are well thought through. In recent years, the US has made great efforts to signal goodwill towards Greenland. Greenland can only take full advantage of this situation if its strategies have the long-term credibility made possible by a solid parliamentary base.
Sara Olsvig is a PhD fellow at Ilisimatusarfik — The University of Greenland
Ulrik Pram Gad is a senior researcher with the Danish Institute for International studies
Originally published by the Danish Institute for International Studies. Republished with the permission of the authors.
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