Greenland has become a diplomatic grey zone | Polarjournal
Grey, but never staid (Photo: State Department / Ron Przysucha)

Early next year, the European Union expects to open its version of a consulate* in Nuuk. Canada’s ambassador (pictured below) has said his country may open a consulate soon. They would join America, which has had a Nuuk consulate since 2020, and Iceland, which has had a diplomat stationed there since 2013. As Greenland’s importance for international security grows and as its potential to supply power and the raw materials needed for the modern economy becomes more apparent, more will surely follow. Their job, in the language of diplomacy, will be to promote co-operation between their country and Greenland, but sometimes doing their job will still require them to speak with Danes. Finding out whom to talk to about what may be their biggest challenge. 

This, according to Ulrik Pram Gad, of Diis, a Danish foreign-policy think tank, is because Nuuk is permitted to pursue a foreign policy of its own, yet it does not always see eye-to-eye with Copenhagen about where its authority ends and Copenhagen’s begins. The rule of thumb has long been that Nuuk is permitted to speak with foreign powers about areas of government that have been devolved from Copenhagen, and that Copenhagen alone is responsible for foreign policy and defence, though, increasingly it has involved Greenlandic decision makers in discussions about these issues when they apply to Greenland. More and more, however, Mr Gad writes in a recent policy brief, this is a rule Nuuk has been challenging.

“Even though Greenlanders and Danes have shared a constitutional grey zone for decades, the zone has now expanded as Danes maintain that foreign and security policy ultimately belong in Copenhagen, while Greenlanders find that this would mean hollowing out their autonomy, since the strategic position of their island gives many domestic issues a security aspect.”  

Coming soon to a location near them (Photo: Canadian Embassy)

Copenhagen, according to a Danish official Mr Gad interviewed for the brief, tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to giving Nuuk a seat at the negotiating table — “for the sake of transparency, we invite them even where they really have no business”, the official reportedly said. Neither side is completely satisfied with the way things work, but both have learned to how to use it to their benefit.

“Danish authorities at times find it convenient that Greenland sends up their own trial balloons, rather than reigning them in before they get shot down, in order to teach Greenland about the world’s reactions and vice versa. At other times, such manoeuvres are staged in co-ordination between Nuuk and Copenhagen to enhance negotiating power.”

For foreign diplomats, navigating a situation like this requires what one described as “goggles allowing us to see through the fog”. Even so, diplomatic faux pas are, Mr Gad has observed, par for the course. How well mis-steps go down amongst decision makers in Nuuk, he finds, depends on the nationality of the person making the mistake. “Some foreign powers are more at liberty than others to overstep red lines by honest mistakes or by hiding behind faked ignorance.” That, at least, will be familiar language to newly arrived diplomats.

*We know that the EU is not a state, and, as such, does not have “embassies” and “consulates”. However, its representative offices abroad perform a similar function as these types offices, so, in the interest of linguistic simplicity, we have chosen to use the terms to apply to their diplomatic missions. 

Kevin McGwin, Polar Journal
Featured image: State Department / Ron Przysucha

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