Learning Greenland's lessons for Brexit

By James Clayton
BBC Newsnight


In 1982, Greenland, the world's largest island yet home to only 57,000 people, left the European Union. How has the country fared and what can the UK learn from the autonomous Danish dependent territory's departure from the EU?

"In Greenlandic waters most seals are usually beside the icebergs, because it's easier for them to see the fish swimming around."

Aksel and his colleague Lars are hunting for seal. They represent Greenland's latest battle with the EU - a journey that started four decades ago.

In 1982 - by almost exactly the same margin as the UK vote - Greenland chose to leave the EU, then the EEC. In one stroke the union lost approximately half its territory.

Greenland's issue with the European Union was the Common Fisheries Policy - allowing European trawlers to fish in Greenlandic waters. In the subsequent negotiations Greenlanders agreed to give the EU limited fishing quotas in exchange for funding - a deal that took three years to hammer out

Aqqaluk Lynge, who was part of the negotiating team, explains: "It was very difficult for the European Union and the Europeans to understand why we wanted to get out and why we didn't want their money.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Fishing is a staple industry in Greenland

"But the fact is that there was no money. There was minimal investment in infrastructure which we needed badly. That's why we could see there was no economic reason to stay."

The deal has generally been seen as a good one for Greenlandic fisherman but not everyone here is so happy.

Fur is one of Greenland's only exports other than fish. You can even buy it at airport departure gates. In 2010 the EU banned the sale of seal products in the EU. There is a small Inuit exemption, but the ban has destroyed the market.

Aksel is angry. "Before the ban we were selling approximately 200,000 to 240,000 skins every year. After that EU ban, we're selling approximately 2,000 skins to the eastern market. It's a big difference, between 200,000 and 2,000. I would call it zero market, no market at all."

Michael Rosing, an MP for the Democrats - a minority party in a government coalition - says: "I definitely think it would have been a lot easier to negotiate, we would have had a lot more bargaining power if we were part of the EU.

"We could kind of go 'yeah you guys want our fish, well we want to sell sealskins so what are you going to do?'"

For other industries, though, Greenland's exit from the EU has been more positive.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The port at Greenland's largest city, Nuuk

Nikolai Nissen has just started exporting beer to the EU. He needs to import everything, other than water, that he requires for the brewing process.

"There is a VAT in Denmark, like in Germany and so on, so if we were a Danish company in Denmark we would have to pay 25% on everything we buy for the company," he says.

"But, because we are outside the EU, we have the possibility of deducting that VAT."

Greenland is able to use its rather curious international status as an advantage. It is outside the EU, but it falls within the Kingdom of Denmark and is therefore one of its overseas territories.

"It would be easier for us if we were a member of the EU of course," Nikolai explains.

"It would be easier for the paperwork and handling the practical matters. Being part of the Kingdom still gives us certain advantages and it's easier to use Denmark as a stepping stone for us to export. It's almost as easy to export to Denmark as it would be if we were a part of the EU."

Image caption,
Greenland is outside the EU, but is part of the Kingdom of Denmark and is an overseas territory of the EU

Some believe Greenland's sheer size - and perhaps more importantly - its potential mineral wealth, means that if Greenland were in the EU it would be eligible for hefty funding.

"We are basically one of the ones that would get more back than we put in," says Mr Rosing "So for us it should be a no brainer, economically. We should get in there and get access to that big pot of money. It's as simple as that."

It would be difficult to say that Greenland has thrived outside the EU. Alcoholism here is rife and the country boasts the unenviable claim as the suicide capital of the world.

When asked, most people here are only vaguely conscious of the EU, or what it is.

But Greenland does offer the UK an imperfect template of how to leave the EU. In many ways it has benefited from leaving. But it's also been left out in the cold when major policy decisions were being made about the future of one of its few exports.

Watch James Clayton's Newsnight film on Greenland via iPlayer.

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