Following the tremendous success of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions’ trip to Svalbard in 2017, the group was inspired to embark on another visit to the Arctic, this time to Greenland. Led by James Gray MP, a delegation left Britain on 23 August on a nine-day trip to the world’s largest island, via Copenhagen. The purpose was to give a cross-party group of eight MPs and Peers a unique chance to learn more about the opportunities and challenges facing Greenland at a time of rapid environmental, geopolitical and economic change. The trip also provided a valuable counterpoint to the Svalbard visit by demonstrating that the Arctic is not a homogenous region.
The group flew first to Copenhagen to hold meetings with the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greenland’s Representative in Copenhagen, and the British Ambassador to Denmark. Greenland was colonised by the Danish in the 18th Century, and remained so until it became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953. Since then, Greenland has gradually gained greater autonomy from Copenhagen, but the Danish Government still controls key jurisdictional areas including foreign affairs, security and financial policy. Both Denmark and Greenland hold the position that independence is the desired end state but dispute how quickly this process should occur. Tension also exists over the question of foreign and security policy. Some Greenlandic domestic policies inevitably have a foreign/security policy dimension to them. This was highlighted recently by Danish Government concerns over the possibility of Greenland taking investment from China to build new airports.
Having been briefed in Copenhagen, the group travelled on to Greenland. In Kangerlussuaq, the group met British scientists from Loughborough University and the University of Sheffield and learnt more about Britain’s important scientific activities in the Arctic and the importance of making them more visible.
In Nuuk, the group visited Denmark’s Joint Arctic Command to hear about the operational challenges facing the Danish military as it tries to safeguard Greenland’s security, and their concerns about recent Russian and Chinese activity in the Arctic. At lunch with the Speaker of the Greenlandic Parliament (“Inatsisartut”) and members of the Presidium (which serves as the public face of the Parliament) – in what was the first bilateral meeting between Greenlandic and British Parliamentarians – talks centred on the question of Greenlandic independence and Greenland’s concerns about the implications of Brexit for its future trading links with Britain and its relationships with British Overseas Territories.
The group then met with WWF Nuuk (to hear about polar bear numbers, fisheries management, and the so-called “Last Ice Area” north of Greenland) and representatives of Greenlandic business associations (to discuss the challenges such as Greenland’s need to develop more human capital and attract foreign investment). Before leaving Nuuk, the group also visited Kangeq, a settlement that Greenlanders were forced to abandon by the Danish Government in the 1960s as part of an effort to consolidate the provision of social and health services in larger settlements – an act which helped spark Greenlandic demands for independence.
In Ilulissat, the group saw first-hand how tourism is being used to prevent other small settlements from having the same fate as Kangeq. In nearby Ilimanaq, a town where the population has fallen from 200 to 50 in recent years, luxury lodges have been built to try to bring more money into the settlement. The risk, however, is that these small settlements end up becoming inhabited museums rather than vibrant local communities. The group also spent a night at the Danish-run Arctic Station in Qeqertausaq on Disko Island. The Arctic Station hosts scientists from around the world including the UK. In Qeqertarsuaq, the group learned how cruise ships are arriving more regularly but contributing very little to the local economy.
There are a wealth opportunities and challenges facing Greenland as it seeks to break-free of geographical, economic and geopolitical constraints. At first glance, one might wonder what there is in Greenland for the UK. After all, Greenland is populated by just 57,000 people and remains reliant on an annual block grant from Denmark to fund much of its governance and financial structures. However, as Greenlanders try to build their nation into a fully-functioning state, they are looking to escape Denmark’s orbit. The UK is an obvious ally for Greenland, as a market for fish, as well as source of tourists, and of investment and expertise for infrastructure and mining projects. English is already beginning to displace Danish as Greenland’s second language, and there could be a future role for British schools and universities in Greenlandic education.
There is plenty more for Britain to discuss with Greenland and the APPG for the Polar Regions hopes that its recent visit will start a dialogue about the future relationship of the two countries. Greenland recently opened its fourth foreign outpost in Reykjavik (to go along with those in Copenhagen, Brussels and Washington, D.C.). Perhaps London should host the fifth?
The APPG for the Polar Regions gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Mamont Foundation, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, WWF-UK and the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union for making this trip possible.