The proud island that floated free
Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th March, 2016)
The problem was simple but infuriating: ‘I had to travel to Brussels every month and ask permission if we could fish in our own waters. They were no longer our own. It was irritating to be told we were part of the European family and must share everything with our friends.’
So what did Lars-Emil Johansen, the president of Greenland’s parliament and a former prime minister, do about it? Simple: he led a campaign for his country of 56,000 people to go it alone – and in 1982 his dream became reality. They voted in a referendum to leave the union.
This was a shock for Brussels – and not just because Greenland is so vast that the then European Economic Community lost more than half its territory overnight. It was hugely symbolic: it remains the only time any state has defied the drift towards ever closer union across the continent by demanding to depart.
So, as Britain weighs up whether to follow suit, I asked the centre-Left politician if he has any regrets? ‘No,’ he says emphatically. ‘I was very happy when it happened. It was a very good decision.’
Although both are proud island nations Greenland is, of course, very different to Britain. It relies almost totally on fishing. The population is half the size of Cheltenham. There are no roads outside the capital Nuuk. And it sits closer to Canada than Copenhagen.
And despite an economy smaller than Guernsey, it still took two years to negotiate a complex new treaty governing relations and trading with the European Union following the 52 per cent vote for separation. Diplomats say it might take Britain a decade of instability to do the same.
But they went for it – and stayed afloat. Many of the arguments in the process sound familiar. ‘They told us that it would be very bad for Greenland if we left,’ said Mr Johansen. ‘They said the economy would collapse, that prices would go up, that it would be almost impossible to live here.’
Clearly this has not been the case and it is not just politicians who say life is good outside the EU.
‘I think it is great for us and has not made any difference,’ said Maik Carretero, who runs a thriving ice cream company in Nuuk. His products are sold in 50 local outlets despite the Arctic weather that saw temperatures of minus 11C yesterday.
Carretero already sells his creations – using polar ice from caves – to smart Danish stores and plans on exporting to Iceland and Britain next. ‘I don’t have any problems selling to Europe,’ he said.
Jeanette Holding, 46, chief executive of Nuuk Couture, a traditional fashion house, also insisted life was fine outside the club. ‘We are very little and if all the bureaucracy came in from the EU that would be very difficult for us. We don’t need this. Greenlandic people are proud of our culture and our traditions and we want to keep hold of them.’
So should Britain take the leap and leave Brussels? Diplomatically, she replied: ‘You must follow your heart and look at yourselves as a people.’
There is one more major difference between Britain and Greenland: they never wanted to join in the first place. The largely ice-covered land was forced to sign up as part of Denmark in 1973 following a referendum, although Greenlanders themselves voted heavily against membership.
This helped fan a home rule movement, which resulted in its own government in 1979 and then the historic referendum won by the Out camps. Yet despite this rejection of Brussels, they still rely on significant EU funds for schools, and receive further money from ‘selling’ some fishing rights.
Protecting this industry was the key issue driving their departure, with fierce resentment at foreign fleets and trawlers sucking up their stocks. Since then the industry has boomed, with expansion into new species such as snow crab and halibut that are exported worldwide.
‘It was the right thing to do,’ said Henrik Leth, chairman of Polar Seafood, the biggest private fishing firm. ‘We have since developed fisheries with the big advantage of being outside the EU.’
This contrasts with Britain, which once had Europe’s biggest fishing fleet but has seen thousands of jobs lost since joining the community. Under bizarre Brussels rules, a single giant Dutch boat now has almost one quarter of the English quota.
Ditte Sorknæs, newly arrived chief executive of a tannery, said she had been struck by local antipathy to the EU. ‘You are having the referendum for the same reason they did,’ she said. ‘It is a personal matter for people: do they get a benefit or is it all negative?’
There was, of course, a hefty minority against quitting. ‘There are people here who think it was the biggest mistake because we could have used lots of money to build our infrastructure and airport,’ said author Juaaka Lyberth.
‘But we do not think that much about the EU now – we are more focused on independence from Denmark,’ said Lyberth, a leading voice in his culture. ‘And when you see the economic situation and problems with migrants, many people here are very glad to be out of the EU.’
Yet, as ever with this vexatious issue, the question is not fully laid to rest even in this fiercely independent community more than 2,000 miles from Brussels. Danish ministers have predicted the scramble for Arctic resources may lead Greenland to rejoin, while Danish diplomats say they still assist on dealings with Brussels.
Some local politicians also want to tap into EU funds for infrastructure, and business people fear getting squeezed out of global markets. ‘If we go to China and argue that we will not give them access to our market unless they let us into theirs, we do not have much sway with only 56,000 people,’ said one fishing firm boss.
Even Mr Leth, also chairman of Business Greenland, representing 500 firms, believes it might be time to reopen debate despite fears of Brussels red tape engulfing the country. ‘We should look at the pros and cons,’ he said. ‘We can’t just sit down and say we will never join the EU again.’
Others take a different tack. ‘We are far from Europe,’ said Mr Johansen. ‘We want co-operation but do not want to be dictated to by Brussels. This is culturally very important for Greenland.’
For now, however, this veteran politician is watching events in Britain with interest. ‘It is possible to make the break and have good relations with Europe,’ he said. ‘You are more part of Europe than we are, but we understand your problems.’