And Then There Were Three: Greenland’s Government Loses a Partner (And Its Majority)

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[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Greenland’s political system is facing a major shakeup this week, as one of the four parties making up the governing coalition, Partii Naleraq [In Danish/Greenlandic] (PN) announced that it was withdrawing its support [In Danish]. This move was in protest of plans for increased Danish-Greenlandic financial cooperation in the refurbishment of three of Greenland’s airports. The airport issue had already become a delicate subject in local politics in recent months, as it had illuminated the larger question of Greenlandic independence and future economic links with Denmark.

The leader of PN, Hans Enoksen, stated that he could no longer support [In Danish] the coalition government in light of plans by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen to negotiate potential Danish co-financing of the renovation, (including runway expansions), of the airports in the capital, Nuuk, as well as in the towns of Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. The Danish government had been growing increasingly concerned about Greenland’s plans to accept bids for the project, especially when one of the applications was revealed to be from a Chinese firm, China Communications Construction Company (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe youxiangongsi 中国交通建设有限公司) or CCCC. In March of this year, it was announced that CCCC was one of the companies shortlisted for the contract, despite unease in Copenhagen.

Mr Enoksen argued that Denmark’s offer to provide financial backing for the airport projects represented a Danish policy overstretch as well as interference in domestic Greenlandic politics by Copenhagen. PN had been at odds with its coalition partners in recent weeks due to the airport issues as well as opposition over proposed fishing quotas in East and Northwestern Greenland. In a published communiqué [In Danish] from Mr Enoksen to the Prime Minister’s office, it was stated that the PN was unhappy both with the airport negotiations as well as poor intra-coalition communication over other economic issues.

The withdrawal of PN, which has been staunchly pro-independence in its policies, comes on the eve of a visit [In Danish] by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen to Nuuk in order to meet with Prime Minister Kielsen on joint economic concerns, including the airport projects. PN currently holds three seats in the 31-seat Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut), and so its departure will deprive the coalition of its majority. The remaining thirteen seats in the now-defunct sixteen-seat coalition [pdf, In Danish] are divided [In Danish] between PM Kielsen’s Siumut party (ten seats), Atassut (two) and the Nunatta Qitornai (NQ) party (one).

The strong differences of political opinion over the airport finance question, and especially the possibility of Chinese investment in the project, underscores the ongoing issue of how to interpret the 2009 Self-Rule Agreement, which is the most recent legal document which clarifies Danish-Greenlandic relations and the jurisdiction of both governments. Under the agreement, domestic economic affairs in Greenland are under the purview of Nuuk, with Denmark retaining the right to oversee Greenlandic foreign policy and defence. With climate change, including the melting of the Greenlandic Ice Sheet, more of the land and surrounding waters in Greenland are being viewed as more open to greater economic activity, including foreign joint ventures.

However, The Danish government has hinted on more than one occasion that it considered Chinese investment in Greenland to be a foreign policy and security matter, especially due to concerns about potential future economic influence by Beijing. As a December 2017 report [pdf] by the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) stated:

As a result of close connections between Chinese companies and China’s political system, there are certain risks related to large-scale Chinese investments in Greenland due to the effect that these investments would have on an economy of Greenland’s size.’

Chinese firms have been involved in other areas of the Greenlandic economy, most notably mining, and with China’s Belt and Road trade routes recently expanding into the Arctic, it is very possible that Greenland may factor into the growing number of Chinese economic partnerships in the region.

The options for PM Kielsen and the remaining coalition partners are limited [In Danish], including attempting to continue to govern in minority status, (although there is no tradition of that practice in the Greenlandic parliament). Other choices for the government are to seek out a new coalition partner among the parties currently in opposition, such as Inuit Ataqatigiit or the Democrats (or Demokraatit), or calling a snap election, which would be the second vote in less than five months. Regardless of what choice is made, the questions surrounding the future of Greenland’s economic ties, and future political relations, with Denmark are unlikely to fade soon.

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi and Mikkel Møller Schøler for their invaluable assistance in the researching of this post.]

Addendum: It was announced on 10 September that a deal had been struck between the governments of Denmark and Greenland to allow the Danish government to pay 700 million Danish kroner (US$109 million) to obtain a one-third stake in Greenland’s airport concern, Kalaallit Airports. The agreement was struck during the meeting between Prime Minister Kielsen and Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen. Copenhagen also agreed to provide DKK450 million (US$70 million) in credit and another DKK450 million in loans, via the Nordic Investment Bank, for the projects. This announcement would appear to shut down the bid by CCCC.

Also during the meeting, about seventy Partii Naleraq supporters held a demonstration [In Danish] against Danish investment in the airport projects. Although PM Kielsen has ruled out an early election, it remains unclear whether his administration will attempt to continue governing in a minority situation or seek out another coalition partner.