Greenland has developed a distinctive relationship with the EU over the past 25 yearsBassah Khalaf charts some of the issues underpinning this journey and asks whether Greenland’s experience holds any lessons for the UK and Scotland after Brexit.

Located between the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, Greenland is the world’s largest island. It was colonized by Denmark in 1775 and today is the only Danish territory associated with the EU. Greenland has a population of 56,700, 88% of whom are of Inuit origin. In 1953, Greenland became a province of Denmark, and in 1979 was granted Home Rule. This held until 2008, when 75% of Greenland’s voters opted in a non-binding referendum for increased self-determination. Specifically, the territory voted for local control of law enforcement and the justice system, as well as responsibility for the coastguard service, and a more equal share of oil revenues.

The referendum led to the Self-Government Act, based on an agreement between the governments of Greenland and Denmark as equal partners. The Act officially replaced the Home Rule settlement in 2009, on the 30th anniversary of the original arrangement. Greenland is now considered to be a self-governing part of the Kingdom of Denmark The preamble to the Self-Government Act recognizes the population of Greenland as a people with the right to self-determination under international law. This implies an option for future total independence from Denmark while in the meantime making significant strides towards providing the peoples of Greenland with a high degree of self-determination. But, until such independence happens, Greenland is, by virtue of the Danish Constitution in conjunction with the Self-Government Act, still formally part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Nuuk, capital of Greenland
Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Greenland Self-Government authorities comprise a democratically elected assembly – Inatsisartut (Parliament) – as well as an administration led by Naalakkersuisut (Government). The Self-Government authorities were assigned the responsibility of determining the composition and structures of these bodies. On its way to possible independence, therefore, Greenland is framed by two relations that do not match the standard image of how a potential sovereign state should be organized. First, Greenland is part of Rigsfællesskabet (the ‘community of the realm’ with Denmark). Second, Greenland enjoys an ambiguous position in relation to the EU: neither fully in nor fully out. This represents a novel way of sharing sovereignty. The relationship with the EU illustrates how Greenland is seeking to diversify its external relations to smooth the way to independence from Denmark.

Relations between Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, and Brussels can best be understood in the trajectory from Danish colonialism towards a future independent Greenland state. This development towards independence involves a central tension: that between the power to decide for oneself versus the capacity of being able to support oneself. In relation to the EU, this tension involves maintaining the cash flow from Brussels while providing as few fishing quotas as possible in return in order to maintain sovereignty. It is a delicate balancing act.


Having been a part of the European Economic Community since 1973 when Denmark acceded to membership with Britain and Ireland, Greenland formally withdrew from the body in 1985. On its withdrawal, Greenland obtained special fisheries arrangements with what would become, in 1993, the European Union. Greenland is included as one of the so-called Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs), enjoying association arrangements (special relations) with Brussels.

As things stand, Greenland and the EU have a relatively close relationship. This has evolved from one with a developmental purpose (in relation to Greenland’s capacity to stand alone) to one that is mutually beneficial for both parties. Greenland’s withdrawal from the EEC in 1985 followed a referendum in 1982 in which 53% of voters opted to leave. Greenlanders had foreseen how control over their fisheries would move from a distant Denmark to an even more distant Brussels. The implications of this were at odds with aspirations for greater home rule which had grown over the course of the 1970s. Consequently, when in 1985 Greenland became the first territory ever to leave the EC, it opted for the status of an OCT.

The EU treaty framework holds a special place for such ‘imperial remnants’: small, non-sovereign, non-European countries and territories which have special relations with an EU member state. The OCTs are not bound by EU legislation but are associated in a manner that grants them and their citizens certain rights and benefits. The association is determined in Article 198 of the Lisbon Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which defines the purpose of the association between the European Union and the OCTs as ‘to promote the economic and social development of the countries and territories and to establish close economic relations between them and the Union as a whole’.

Map of the European Union EU Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT) and Outermost Regions (OMR)
Map of the European Union (EU) Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT) and Outermost Regions (OMR). [CC BY-SA 4.0]

These objectives were confirmed and developed in 2013 in the EU’s so-called third Overseas Association Decision (OAD3). This covers the period from 2014 to 2020 and sets out a partnership with the Union aimed at achieving sustainable development in the OCTs. By this, OCTs are considered to belong to the ‘European family’. The association is based on three key pillars: enhancing competitiveness; strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability; and promoting cooperation and integration between the OCTs and other partners and neighbouring regions. The institutional framework of the association states is charged with facilitating regular comprehensive political dialogue. Mechanisms to effect sustainable development in the OCTs include financial resources and technical assistance aimed at strengthening their capabilities in regard to strategic and regulatory frameworks. Finally, OCTs are eligible for participation in funding from EU programmes. The 11th European Development Fund (EDF) allocates 364.5 million Euros to OCTs for the seven-year period from 2014 to 2020. An amount of 100 million Euros is earmarked by the European Investment Bank.


As Greenland leaving the EEC was unprecedented, the negotiations were extremely protracted. They involved European, Danish, and Greenland officials. The outcome was the Greenland Treaty of 1985, which, as we have said, moved Greenland from being a component of Danish membership to the status of OCT. In relation to fishery products – Greenland´s sole export – the tax-free access to the EU market provided by the OCT arrangement became conditional on possibilities for EU member states to access Greenland’s fishing grounds. In January 2007 a Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the EU, the Government of Denmark and the Government of Greenland came into force. Its main objective was to strengthen the relationship in fisheries between the EU and Greenland.

Greenland fishing trawler in port
The Greenlandic fishing trawler Akamalik in port. [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Fisheries Partnership Agreement and accompanying Protocol and annexes lay down the conditions for EU member state vessels fishing in Greenland’s waters. This entails catch quotas and a number of technical agreements. According to the Protocol (to be renegotiated at intervals) access is paid for and Greenland’s own fishing sector is supported through a long-term Sectoral Policy Program. In January 2013, the new commercial fisheries partnership agreement between the EU and Greenland came into force. The EU’s financial contribution is 17.8 million Euros annually for fishing rights and quotas in the Greenland Exclusive Economic Zone. The Protocol covers a period of 3 years (2013-2015) and also holds out a prospect for closer economic cooperation in the fishing industry through the possibility of joint enterprises involving companies from both parties. The Administration of the Protocol is the responsibility of the Greenland authorities. The government’s main objective is that fisheries will continue to be the main export contributor and be a factor in sound economic development.


Co-operation with Greenland in areas other than fisheries started in 2007 with a support programme for the education and vocational training sectors. More recently, a Financing Agreement covering the 2015 European Union support to the Greenland education programme was signed in March of that year in Brussels by the Prime Minister of Greenland and Deputy-Director General for International Cooperation and Development, European Commission. Greenland also receives funding from the EU’s general budget through the EU-Greenland Partnership. For the period 2014-2020, a total sum of 217.8 million Euros is designated for cooperation with Greenland. The education, vocational training and post-elementary school systems have been chosen as the concentration sector for this area of cooperation between Union and Greenland for the period 2014-2020. The 2014 Council Decision on relations between the European Union, Greenland and the Kingdom of Denmark defines the rules and procedures for cooperation beyond fisheries. The objectives of the Council Decision are:

• To support and cooperate with Greenland in addressing its major challenges, in particular the sustainable diversification of the economy, the need to increase the skills of its labour force, including scientists, and the need to improve Greenland’s information systems in the field of information and communication technologies.
• To contribute to the capacity of the Greenland administration in formulating and implementing national policies, in particular in new areas of mutual interest.


There is little doubt that Brexit has reignited discussion about the EU and Greenland. In 1982 – by almost exactly the same margin as the UK vote to leave the EU in 2016 – Greenland chose to leave the EEC. In one stroke, the Community lost approximately half of its physical territory. However as we have seen, Greenland then began, and successfully concluded, negotiations with Brussels, demonstrating that arrangements and forms of association with the EU are in practice more flexible and multifarious than is sometimes depicted.
This should be borne in mind as the UK, and all its constituent nations, approach Brexit negotiations and look beyond them. If Greenland’s experience holds any indications as to what might be possible for Scotland – which, along with Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU in the face of a UK-wide vote to leave it – in terms of maintaining relations with Brussels on suitable terms after Brexit, it would be for the ‘big country’ (in the form of the UK government) to create a space in which Edinburgh can find its own way of maintaining an appropriate form of relationship with Brussels. London’s willingness to assume such a stance will be the catalyst, or obstacle, to this happening.

Bassah Khalaf is an Assistant Professor in international law at the University of Southern Denmark. Dr. Khalaf specializes in European law, human rights and administrative law, focusing on immigration and family reunification. Her PhD thesis on Union Citizens’ family reunification rights was published in 2016. Contact Bassah at:

Featured photo: An iceberg just offshore in Greenland. [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons