Greenland: Self-Governing Island

This is the fifth in a series of articles about self governing Islands and what we in Orkney can learn from their governance. The Islands Bill is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament and it will see more powers transferred to Orkney. 

Greenland is the largest island in the world but also has the lowest population density. Its current population is 56,700. The official language is Greenlandic.  Orkney and Greenland share a Viking past. It was also under the control of Norway until 1262. In 1814 it became a Danish ‘colony’ and in 1953 was incorporated into the Danish Constitution as part of the Realm of Denmark.

When Denmark joined the European Economic Community (EEC, later to be the European Union) in 1973, Greenland also became a member. It held a referendum in 1982 and withdrew from the EU in 1985. It is now associated to the EU under the Overseas Association Decision.


In 1979 Denmark ‘granted’ home rule to Greenland. In 2008, after a referendum, Greenland voted in favour of increased self-government and the transfer of more powers to their parliament by 21,355 votes to 6,663. Greenland retains Queen  Margrethe II of Denmark as its Head of State.

Greenlanders are recognised as a separate people under International Law. It is not bound by EU laws. It has powers over:

  • judicial affairs
  • policing
  • natural resources

Denmark sends a block grant to Greenland from taxes collected (similar to Scotland having some of its taxes returned from the UK Government) and  retains control over:

  • foreign affairs
  • defence

Greenland and the EU

The economy is highly dependent on fishing making up  90% of its exports and discontent with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) resulted in Greenland leaving the EU in 1985.  It still receives a lot of funding from the EU. Under the EU-Greenland Partnership it received €217.8 million from 2014 – 2020. This is to enhance the Educational system and vocational training in the island.

On the 19th March 2015  the President of the Commission (on behalf of the EU), the Prime Minister of Denmark and the Greenland Premier signed ‘an umbrella’ framework document for the post-2013 EU-Greenland relations, a “Joint Declaration on relations between the European Union, on the one hand, and the Government of Greenland and the Government of Denmark, on the other”.

The Future

Greenland has considerable deposits of minerals:  iron, uranium, aluminium, nickel, platinum, tungsten, titanium, and copper and in 2008 the mining of rubies commenced. The extraction of its natural resources are of great interest to large mining corporations.

The population of Greenland is 88% Inuit with the rest being made up mainly by Northern Europeans. The average life expectancy is 71, however, it has the highest suicide rate in the world.  It has huge problems with alcohol dependency and unemployment. The jobs in higher administrative roles tend to be taken up by Northern Europeans rather than those of Inuit descent. Alcohol prices are kept very high to try and deal with the consumption of alcohol and this has had a limited effect.

Until recently Greenland was very dependent on importing fossil fuels but now sees its future energy needs in renewables. 70% of the electricity sold by the state owned energy company is now from hydropower and this is where investment is planned.

Over several weeks The Orkney News has looked at different island groupings and how they use the degree of self governance that they have. Orkney has so many advantages with its low population density and highly qualified but ageing workforce. There are many variations and options available to how islands can be governed but the one thing remains constant – we all share the commonality of being islanders. Next week we will again feature another self governing island.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


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