Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Greenland Referendum

Greenland referendum could pave the way towards independence

Greenlanders will head to the polls today for a referendum on whether to expand the Danish territory’s autonomy and thus possibly pave the way for total independence for the Arctic island.

Some 39,000 people are eligible to cast their vote on the local government’s proposal for self-rule that could be a first step to ending nearly three centuries of Danish hegemony in Greenland.

The proposal is the result of a Danish-Greenlandic commission report in May calling for “the people of Greenland (to) be considered a people in line with international law ... with the right to self-determination.”

If the “yes” side wins, the local government in Greenland, which was granted a semi-autonomous status in 1979, has the chance to take over control of new areas such as natural resource management, justice and police affairs and to a certain extent foreign affairs.

Greenlandic would also be recognised as the island’s official language.

Also at stake in Tuesday’s referendum is how to share the potential revenues from the natural resources under Greenland’s seabed, which according to international experts is home to large oil deposits.

The commission report on self-rule proposed among other things that “the revenues from activities related to raw materials be distributed to Greenland” in return for reducing annual subsidies from Copenhagen.

A recent poll conducted by the University of Nuuk and broadcast on Greenlandic radio on November 16, indicated that an overwhelming 75 percent of Greenlanders who had already made up their minds were in favour of expanding the island’s autonomy.

Just 25 percent said they were against the move.

This referendum “is not about independence,” local government chief Hans Enoksen stressed in a radio interview, adding however that he hoped “Greenland will be independent in 12 years ... for my 65th birthday.”

“Agreeing on self-rule is the only road forward,” he said, pointing out that “the Greenlandic people have wished for many years to be more independent.”

Like most of the parties in the local parliament, as well as the Greenlandic media, the Social Democratic prime minister has called on voters to “take advantage of this opportunity.”

He is not the only politician who believes full independence can be achieved in the not so distant future.

Lars Emil Johansen, one of two Greenlandic members of the Danish parliament, says he dreams the day will come by 2021, in time for the 300th anniversary of Denmark’s colonisation of Greenland.

“Of course we can be the masters of our own destiny and fly on our own wings,” he told AFP.

Not all Greenlanders are dreaming of breaking loose from Denmark however. A fringe movement, backed by a single political party, the Democrats, has emerged as an outspoken critic of the proposal.

“Greenland will never be an independent state,” Finn Lynge recently stated, much to the dismay of his Siumut party, which is part of the government coalition and strongly in favour of a “yes” vote in the referendum.

“There are only between 50,000 and 60,000 of us living here in geographically and climatically extreme conditions. With such a tiny population it is impossible to provide the human contributions needed to turn Greenland into a modern and independent state,” he said.

And while the island’s biggest daily, Sermitsiaq, has called on voters to support the self-rule motion, it has stressed that “it is wrong to talk about independence now” because “independence is indissolubly linked to an economy that can support it.”

In 2007, the territory received subsidies of 3.2 billion kroner (432 million euros, 540 million dollars) from Denmark, or about 30 percent of its gross domestic product.

With its 2.1-million square kilometer (840,000 square mile) surface, 80 percent of which is covered by ice, Greenland is the world’s largest island. It counts 57,000 inhabitants, 50,000 of whom are native Inuits.

In 1985, it voted by referendum to leave the European Union, of which Denmark remains a member.

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