Iceland’s Neighbours Turn Up Heat On Declaring Independence

Denmark still rules Greenland and Faroe Islands, but change could come as natural resources emerge
4.7.2012
Words by Cory Weinberg
In her 2007 electro anthem “Declare Independence,” Björk shouted patriotic lyrics dedicated to Iceland’s neighbours—Greenland and the Faroe Islands. “Start your own currency! Make your own stamp! Protect your language!” the Icelandic pop star cried.

But it’s not so easy.

Still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, like Iceland was until 1944, the two sparsely populated North Atlantic countries are stuck on the edge of independence. Both have inched closer to earning full sovereignty, but the Danish crown—and the economic subsidies and security that come with it—has been hard to shake.

“We feel that the same applies for a country as it does for an individual. There’s desire to be independent and to make your own life. You grow up, live with your parents, but at some point you have to move out,” said Gunvør Balle, a Member of Parliament in the Faroe Islands.  

Two countries could soon wean itself off Denmark’s annual pay checks by finding their own treasure chests of sorts. Arctic waters have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past half-century—a pace double that of the rest of the world’s seas. That could pay off for Greenland and the Faroes, opening up accessibility to oil, gas and minerals as the ice melts.

And as the Arctic warms, the countries’ aspirations for independence are also heating up. The outline of Greenland’s first constitution will be written this year, and the Faroese Parliament goes back and forth in drafting its own first constitution, putting their futures in flux.

“It’s no longer just the musicians singing songs about revolutions. It’s politicians setting an agenda. It’s the new generation rising,” said Aleqa Hammond, a member of the Greenlandic Parliament called Landsting.

We the (frozen) people

Greenland is the world’s largest island, but it might as well be the world’s largest block of ice, too. About 57,000 people, most of whom are native Inuit, live in the country that is more than 80% ice. The economy is based almost entirely on fish exports, and social problems like alcoholism and domestic abuse have plagued the nation.

A self-government referendum in 2008 gave Greenland control over government functions like healthcare, education, police and courts. About 75% of the country voted in favour of greater autonomy. Denmark, however, still dictates foreign policy, and Greenland receives almost one-third of its $2.1 billion gross domestic product from Danish subsidies.

Up next, the country could create its own constitution. Greenland’s parliament gave the green light last fall to draft an outline for the guiding document, which Aleqa, the proposal’s author, called “one of the greatest moves we’ve made that is concrete toward creation of the nation of Greenlanders.” The constitutional proposal will be forwarded to parliament on November 10.

Aleqa is leading the charge toward Greenland’s independence as chairwoman of Siumut, the country’s social democratic party, which is a minority party in its parliament. She says both the economic and nationalistic motivations are stronger than ever to declare independence. “I don’t look like a Dane. I don’t think like a Dane. I don’t feel like a sister of Danes. This is a question of seeing my own future in our own country,” she said.

Resistance to the resistance

But some are balking. The majority party in parliament, the left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit, is not as eagerly jumping toward independence, Aleqa said. The IA party is also holding back Greenlandic autonomy in another way, she added, with some ministers “speaking Danish from the podium” instead of the native Greenlandic.

Denmark would also likely challenge complete Greenlandic independence. The two countries’ prime ministers both signed the Kingdom of Denmark’s “Strategy for the Arctic” through the next decade, which lays out plans for making sustainable use of future profitable resources in the region. Greenland has started reaping some of these benefits, selling licenses to firms like ExxonMobil and Chevron to drill for oil in its western Disko Bay.

“Suddenly, Greenlanders are of interest to Danes not because they think we’re great people to deal with, but because of the riches of the Greenlanders,” Aleqa said.

Waves crash on the islands

In the Faroe Islands, scattered between Iceland and Norway, enthusiasm for independence has come in waves since the country became self-governing in 1948, said Faroese MP Gunvør Balle, a member of the left-wing Republican party, Tjóðveldi.

Most recently, the Faroese faced severe austerity measures from Denmark after an early ‘90s banking crisis in the Faroe Islands. With Danish leaders calling for spending and wage cuts, 4,000 Faroe Islands citizens emigrated, and a streak of independence was formed, Gunvør said.

“When it dawned upon us that so-called security had let us down, the Faroese were angry and bitter,” she added. “We always thought the Danes would be there for us in a great crisis. That created a huge movement [toward independence].”

Stepping up onto the world’s stage

Now, the parliament, Løgtingið, continues to debate over a new constitution, a document that’s been in the works for a decade. “The constitution is like an egg, you’re afraid to carry it because you might break it,” she said. “We’re afraid of losing it all, and having to start all over again.”

She said the country needs to take the reins over decisions like immigration laws and to take control of its airspace to gain greater autonomy. And with more responsibility, its politicians will need to grow up, she added.

“We don’t have that impetus to be prudent, be wise, and take all the responsibility needed for a country,” she said. “We don’t need to be involved in world politics and to have an opinion on what’s going on in the world. When we have a debate in our parliament, the debate is narrow and limited.”

While independence may still be decades away, the melting Arctic is driving the conversation. In the Faroe Islands, where whaling, fishing and agriculture have ruled the economy, a mineral industry is also burgeoning.

“The Danish interest in Faroese and Greenland is obviously geopolitical because the whole world is focused on the Arctic region,” Gunvør said. “There is a strong will to be independent economically, but at what speed? [My party] wants it to happen very quickly. We have to make a decision and we have to do it our way.”  



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