Wednesday 18 September 2019

Claire Parker: 'Trump's plan to buy Greenland has come up against a red light in Copenhagen'

Out of bounds: Snow covered mountains rise above the harbour of Tasiilaq in Greenland, which President Donald Trump says he would be consider buying. Photo: Reuters
Out of bounds: Snow covered mountains rise above the harbour of Tasiilaq in Greenland, which President Donald Trump says he would be consider buying. Photo: Reuters

Claire Parker

US President Donald Trump faced a fierce European backlash to his reported interest in acquiring Greenland from Denmark.

EU politicians compared the idea to colonialism while officials on the island said they welcome investment but not a new owner.

"Of course Greenland is not for sale," Greenland's government said in a statement, echoing earlier remarks by Greenland's Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger.

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In its statement, the government said it viewed the reports "as an expression of greater interest in investing in our country and the possibilities we offer".

In Denmark, which counts the autonomous Greenland as part of its territory, the reaction to Mr Trump's apparent interest in the strategically located island was far less diplomatic, with some politicians characterising the idea as a joke.

Danish politicians across the spectrum reacted with bewilderment, ridicule and outright anger over what they perceived to be a deeply inappropriate suggestion.

"The whole idea that another country could buy Greenland - like it should be a colony - is so strange to us," said Michael Aastrup Jensen, a member of the influential centre-right Venstre party in the Danish parliament.

Another member of his party, former Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, chimed in on Twitter, writing: "It must be an April Fool's Day joke."

"The Greenlandic people have their own rights," Martin Lidegaard, chairman of the Danish parliament's foreign policy committee and former foreign minister, said. "I hope it is a joke - to not just buy a country but also its people."

Greenland's fewer than 60,000 residents - spread out across roughly 2.2 million square kilometres - mostly govern themselves, even though they are part of the kingdom of Denmark. Melting ice could uncover offshore oil resources.

The news of Mr Trump's interest in purchasing Greenland comes ahead of a planned visit to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, next month. Danes are worried this will now derail the agenda.

"It will suck the oxygen out of the room and it will take over everything," said Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, a professor at the Institute for Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College.

Even though Mr Trump's own senior aides are baffled by the idea and unsure whether to take it seriously, the notion is not without precedent.

He is not the first US president to consider such an offer - the Truman administration reportedly offered Denmark $100m for Greenland after World War II. Still, Danes appeared shocked the same suggestion could still come up in 2019.

Mr Trump's interest in acquiring the massive island - technically located in North America but culturally and politically tied to Europe - was first reported by 'The Wall Street Journal' last week.

The idea has touched a nerve in Greenland, which has long sought complete independence. Denmark has ruled the island for nearly 300 years, although it granted Greenland a degree of autonomy in 1979 and complete self-governance in 2009. Copenhagen still maintains control over defence and foreign affairs.

Greenlanders have since pushed for even greater independence, breaking from the European Union in 1985 to protect its fishing industry. Fishing makes up 90pc of Greenland's exports.

Mr Rahbek-Clemmensen described independence as the "raison d'etre" of Greenland politics. All but one of Greenland's political parties support full independence from Denmark, he said, and the debate now centres on when, rather than if, Greenland will achieve it.

The US has long had a military footprint in Greenland because of its strategic location. After the end of the Cold War, however, its significance faded, but recent efforts by China and Russia to expand their foothold in the region triggered a policy shift under the Obama administration toward a more active US role there.

"They really, really need to get foreign investments to build an economic foundation to become independent one day," Mr Rahbek-Clemmensen said. "This is where China comes in. Basically China has been very bullish in making investments in mining and infrastructure in Greenland."

Apart from Greenland's nationalist party - which is pushing for full independence by 2021 - most Greenlanders recognise that it is unlikely the island will get on the economic footing necessary for a clean break from Denmark any time soon, according to Rasmus Leander Nielsen, a political scientist at the University of Greenland, who has surveyed Greenland public opinion.

Damien Degeorges, a Reykjavík-based consultant specialising in Greenlandic affairs, said Mr Trump's interest in Greenland was not irrational.

The idea to acquire Greenland, he said, could be read as: "Let's buy it before the Chinese do."

"What Greenland wants is money from investments, to develop their economy," said Mr Degeorges, noting that Europe and the United States had not shown as much interest in the island as China.

"I would not take it literally," he said of Mr Trump's idea, but rather as an indication of the American president's engagement on the issue of China's expansion.

When Beijing recently attempted to fund infrastructure projects in Greenland, the US government voiced concerns. (© The Washington Post)

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