Greenland’s Exit From EU Holds History Lessons for U.K.: Q&A

Almost three decades before Britain’s referendum, Greenland became the first country to leave what is now known as the European Union.

In 1982, the Arctic island, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, voted with a 53 percent majority to exit the bloc to gain control of its fishing quotas. It didn’t leave until 1985.

Jens Wendel-Hansen, who’s assistant professor at the Institute of Culture, Language & History at the University of Greenland, answers questions about the country’s landmark exit and how it’s fared since.

How did Greenland get to vote on leaving?

“In 1972, Greenland was thrown into the EEC, which intensified the antagonism between Denmark and Greenland. It became more visible that the two countries had different interests, which in return intensified the demand in Greenland for home rule. In 1979 home rule was introduced and then the referendum on whether or not Greenland should remain in the EEC was held in 1982. That referendum was of course made possible by the introduction of home rule, because with that Greenland became to a certain degree a political entity.”

What deal did Greenland get out of its exit?

“The final solution on how Greenland should exit the EEC resulted in Greenland getting all or most of the benefits of membership because of its connection with Denmark, while also retaining the benefits of standing outside the community, such as having control over its fishing quota. It was also still possible for Greenland to get some of the subsidy programs.”

“Greenlandic exports are not only primarily but almost exclusively made up of fishing products. So the fishing quotas naturally play a very, very important part. And this argument has been used afterwards. For example, there was a big debate about the 2016 cod fishing quotas, which wound up being four times larger than recommended by biologists. So it’s actively used that Greenland can set its own fishing quotas.”

Why did it take Greenland three years to leave?

“I think the reason is that you also had to define the future relationship to the EEC, which was even more complicated since Greenland couldn’t be totally withdrawn from the EEC since it has strong constitutional connections to Denmark. So that was probably the reason it had to be exactly defined which parts Greenland were completely left out while the country retained some of the duties and benefits of membership.”

Did leaving create any problems for Greenland?

“Not anything that has been a great subject of historical works. Greenland has begun to discuss the possibility of rejoining the EU again. Until now, the discussion has been very vague so it’s hard to say exactly what is the bearing argument for re-entering. It could probably be that with self-government introduced in Greenland in 2009, the country would have a more independent role to play in the EU in the future. But then again the great opposition argument would be that the country would then not be able to decide its own fishing quotas.”

Does the subject still divide voters in Greenland?

“It’s my immediate opinion that this is actually not as big of a deal as it was in 1972 or 1982. Now, it’s not a part of the discussion of Greenlandic independence or self-government. Now it’s a question of whether Greenland should be a more or less independent EU country, on its own. So I do not see it as being as conflicted, as it was before.”

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