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Summary

In 1972, when Greenland had the status equal to that of a Danish county, Denmark voted in favor of acceding to the European Economic Community (EEC) in a 1972 national referendum.  When Greenland attained home-rule status and greater authority over its sovereignty in 1979, it held a national referendum in which it voted to leave the EEC.  Greenland then became an Overseas Country and Territory in 1985 when it left the EEC.  Post-departure, Greenland needed to renegotiate its fisheries agreement with the EEC, ultimately providing EEC Member States with the same access to Greenland waters as they had while Greenland was part of the EEC, but also giving Greenland the ability to renegotiate the agreement’s terms every five years, with tariffs and quotas renegotiated on an annual basis.  Today Greenland and the EU have a sustainable development agreement providing Greenland with some €233.6 million in aid over a four-year period.  Greenland and the EU still have a fisheries agreement valid for six years at a time, with quotas renegotiated annually.

I.  Background

Located east of the North American continent, Greenland is the world’s largest island.[1]  Native Inuit, who are Danish citizens, account for 88%[2] of the island’s total population of 55,847 (as of 2016).[3]

Greenland has been associated with Denmark since Icelanders colonized Greenland circa 1000 AD.[4]  However, prior to 1721 when Greenland was recolonized under Pastor Hans Egede, Greenlanders retained a great deal of autonomy and were largely governed separately from the Danish-Norwegian Kingdom.[5]  Denmark established a trade monopoly with Greenland in 1776.[6]  In more recent years, Greenland enjoyed a status equal to that of a Danish county beginning in 1953,[7] achieved home rule in 1979,[8] and since 2009 has had self-governance.[9] 

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II.    Greenland’s Relationship with the EEC

In October of 1972, Denmark held a national referendum on whether to join the European Economic Community (EEC).[10]  The national vote was 63.3% in favor of joining, whereas 70% of Greenlanders voted against joining.[11]  The main reason for the Greenlandic opposition is said to have been fear of losing sovereignty and control over fishing rights.[12]  The fact that Greenland became part of the EEC despite a majority of its voters opposing it has been credited with sparking the independence movement that led to the Home Rule Act of 1979.[13]  The Home Rule Act shifted Greenland from an entity with the legal status of a Danish county[14] to a territory with local control over many domestic matters.  As a result of changes created by home rule, Denmark issued special rules on fisheries in Greenland,[15] giving Greenland rights different from those contained in the Danish Fisheries Act.[16]  In addition to the special rules on fisheries, the Home Rule Act also provided Greenland with autonomy over issues such as taxes,[17] hunting,[18] and social affairs.[19]  In total, the law allowed for seventeen different areas to be handled by the Home Rule Government, provided that the Home Rule Body (parliament equivalent) first voted to gain control over these areas.[20]

Following the adoption of greater independence through the Home Rule Act, Greenlanders held a national referendum on EEC membership.[21]  On February 23, 1983, with 53% in favor, Greenland voted to leave the EEC.[22]  After negotiations, it formally withdrew from the EEC in 1985.[23]  The withdrawal was completed through the adoption of the 1985 Treaty between Greenland, Denmark and the European Communities.[24]

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III.  Greenlandic Withdrawal Negotiations

Negotiations of the Treaty between Greenland, Denmark, and the EEC took place during the years 1982 to 1984.[25]  The negotiations had several phases, starting with the official request for withdrawal by Denmark on behalf of Greenland on May 19, 1982.[26]  The Greenlandic Home Rule Minister for Social Affairs Moses Olsen argued that

our full membership of the European Community as a European Region is inadequate and unworkable along with our self-determination established through our Home Rule.  Our climate norms, culture, ethnicity, social structure, economic and industrial pattern, infrastructure and basis for existence are so different from Europe that we can never equate with the European countries or regions.[27]

The Danish government initially only proposed that Greenland be withdrawn from the geographical scope of the EEC, European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) treaties.[28]  The European Communities responded on May of 1982 and issued a draft opinion on the withdrawal and its terms.[29]  The Commission considered several aspects that were unique to Greenland, including its geographic location, its small population, its small economy, and its native population.[30]

At the time of withdrawal, Greenland was receiving substantial aid in the form of infrastructure aid and social projects from the EEC,[31] as it was “considered a priority target for various types of assistance.”[32]  It actually received nine times the average amount of aid received by other EEC Members and its aid was not capped.[33]  Greenland had also received some European Currency Unit (ECU) 52.2 million (about US$56 million at current rates)[34] in loans from the European Investment Bank.[35]

During Greenland’s EEC membership years the EEC countries had received a considerable increase in access to the Greenlandic fishing industry, at the expense of access by non-EEC members.[36]  The exports to the EEC amounted to 80% of Greenland’s total exports.[37]

Issues for discussion during withdrawal negotiations thus centered on Greenland’s benefits, access to Greenland’s fishing industry, and vested rights of Community workers in Greenland.[38]  In addition, relationships between the EEC and nonmembers were affected as treaties had been negotiated between Canada, Norway, and the Faroe Islands that included Norwegian and Faroese access to Greenlandic waters.[39]  Thus, the final proposal from the Commission was that Greenland be awarded Overseas Country and Territory (OCT) status for all areas except its fishing industry.[40]  This was considered a flexible arrangement at the time.[41]

Through the negotiation process, Greenland was able to negotiate and set its own rules regarding fisheries, specifically quotas, through a fisheries agreement with Denmark and the European Communities, in which EEC Member States would also pay to keep their access to Greenlandic waters.[42]  In the final text, the Greenlandic fishing industry was recognized as an essential economic activity.[43]  As such, the agreement did not prevent Greenland from claiming the exclusion paragraph of GATT 1947, a paragraph which would allow Greenland to set up temporary prohibitions and restrictions to protect these interests.[44]

Greenland’s withdrawal was resolved by the creation of a Treaty between Greenland and the EEC.[45]  The Commission granted formal withdrawal approval on February 22, 1983.[46]  Withdrawal was finalized as of January 1, 1985, when Greenland became an OCT.[47]  As an OCT, Greenland had to ensure that EEC Member States were afforded at least as favorable treatment as that afforded to nonmember countries.[48]  Because Greenland is an OCT member, it is also represented in Brussels.[49]

Once finalized, the protocol to the EEC-Denmark-Greenland Fisheries Agreement provided for payment in return for EEC fishing rights outside of Greenland.[50]  These rights were not substantially different from the rights that EEC Members enjoyed prior to Greenland’s withdrawal from the EEC.[51]  As an OCT, Greenland would have been outside the free trade zone, had it not been for the special conditions on Greenlandic OCT status in relation to fisheries.[52]

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IV.   Greenland’s Current Self-Governance and Relationship with the EU

The Greenlandic Home Rule Act was replaced with the Self-Governance Act in 2009,[53] following a national referendum on self-governance held on November 25, 2008.[54]  More than 75% of Greenlanders voted in favor of it.[55]  Under the Self-Governance Act, Greenland assumed greater independence and now has additional fields of legislative and executive power, including over mineral resource activities.[56]  A guide on interpreting the Self-Governance Act has been issued.[57]

The fisheries agreement between Greenland, Denmark, and what is now the EU has changed over the years since the EU’s formal creation in 1993.[58]  Greenland still maintains both fishing and cooperation agreements with the EU.[59]  These agreements are renegotiated by Greenland, Denmark, and the EU every six years.[60]  The quotas on fisheries are renegotiated every year.[61]  The current protocol is in place from January 1, 2016, to December 31, 2020.[62]  The first agreement was in force for ten years from 1985 to 1995.[63]  Greenland negotiates its fisheries quotas by itself, but may request support from Denmark, as seen in the Danish role in mackerel negotiations.[64]

The EU has budgeted some €217.8 million (about US$233.6 million) in aid to Greenland for the period 2014 to 2020.[65]

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Prepared by Elin Hofverberg
Foreign Law Research Consultant
April 2017


[1] Greenland, European Commission, http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/countries/greenland_en (last visited Apr. 21, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/29E2-UMVF.

[2] Id.

[3] Statistics Greenland, Greenland in figures 2016, Figure from January 2016, at 9 (2016), http://naalakkersuisut.gl/~/media/Nanoq/Files/Attached Files/Engelske-tekster/Publications/Greenland in Figures 2016.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/374T-DB8H.

[4] The first person to colonize Greenland was an Icelandic outcast.  Grønland, Aarhus Universitet, http://danmarkshistorien.dk/leksikon-og-kilder/vis/materiale/groenland/ (last updated Feb. 13, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/D8MY-ZNR8.

[5] Natalia Loukacheva, The Arctic Promise: Legal and Political Autonomy of Greenland and Nunavut 17–18 (2007).

[6] Axel Kjær Sørensen, Den Kongelige Grønlandske Handel i Den Store Danske, Gyldendal, http://denstoredanske. dk/index.php?sideId=109053 (last visited Apr. 18, 2017), archived athttps://perma.cc/3RZF-EC7A.

[7] Danmarks Riges Grundlov (Grundloven) [Danish Constitution], LOV nr 169 af 05/06/1953, https://www.retsinformation.dk/forms/r0710.aspx?id=45902, archived athttps://perma.cc/5CBR-5SCEThis Constitution made Greenland into a Danish county, not a colony. 

[8] Lov om Grønlands hjemmestyre [Act on Greenlands Home Rule], LOV nr 577 af 29/11/1978 (no longer in force), https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=168699, archived at https://perma.cc/U7EB-FDNM.

[9] Lov om Grønlands Selvstyre [Act on Greenland’s Self-Governance], LOV nr 473 af 12/06/2009, https://www.retsinformation.dk/forms/r0710.aspx?id=125052, archived at https://perma.cc/E6YV-KKXW, unofficial English translation available on the Greenlandic Parliament website, at http://naalakkersuisut.gl/~/ media/Nanoq/Files/Attached Files/Engelske-tekster/Act on Greenland.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/GNJ8-E72R.

[10] Folkeafstemninger, Danmarks Statistik, http://www.dst.dk/da/Statistik/emner/befolkning-og-valg/valg/folkeafstemninger (last visited Apr. 18, 2017), archived athttps://perma.cc/LH49-WLHQ

[11] Grønland, Aarhus Universitet, supra note 4; Danmarks medlemskab af EF og EU, Aarhus Universitet, http://danmarkshistorien.dk/leksikon-og-kilder/vis/materiale/danmarks-medlemskab-af-ef-og-eu/ (last visited Apr. 18, 2017), archived athttps://perma.cc/G24E-R79A.

[12] United in Diversity–A View from Greenland, Blog active.eu: History and Policy (May 3, 2016), http://historyandpolicy.blogactiv.eu/2016/05/03/united-in-diversity-a-view-from-greenland/, archived at https://perma.cc/EHD9-T8E8.

[13] Kurt Kristensen, 40-årsdagen for Grønlands nej til EF, Sermitsiaq, http://sermitsiaq.ag/node/136959, archived athttps://perma.cc/manage/create; see also Loukacheva, supra note 5, at 30.  Greenland’s experience stands in contrast to that of the Faroe Islands, which at the time of Denmark’s accession to the EEC had already acquired home rule and could decide to stay outside of the EEC.  Lov om Danmarks tiltrædelse af De Europæiske Fællesskaber (Tiltrædelsesloven) [Act on Denmark’s Assession t the European Economic Community] (* 1) (* 2), art. 8, LOV nr 447 af 11/10/1972, https://www.retsinformation.dk/forms/r0710.aspx?id=72060, archived athttps://perma.cc/AJ4N-DJGS.

[14] Kevin Mason, European Communities Commission–Greenland–EC Commission Draft Approves Withdrawal of Greenland from the European Community and Proposes Terms for Economic Reassociation, 13 Ga. J. Int’l & Comp. L. 865, 868 n.24, http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1898&context=gjicl, archived at https://perma.cc/U74R-UXKP (stating that “Rather than being, as it appears on its face, a case of a Member States’ former colony now independent and seeking to leave the Community, it is legally and theoretically as though a ‘county’ of Denmark were attempting to secede from the EC, with Copenhagen’s blessing.”).

[15] Bekendtgørelse om fiskeriterritoriet ved Grønland [Ordinance on the Fishing Territory outside Greenland], BEK nr 176 af 14/05/1980 (no longer in force), https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710. aspx?id=83764, archived at https://perma.cc/CM5Z-MHKR.

[16] Id.; compare Lov om Danmarks Riges fiskeriterritorium LOV [Act on Danish Realm’s Fishing Territory] nr 597 af 17/12/1976, https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=83767, archived at https://perma.cc/W26W-GXGP.

[17] Bilag 1 to Hjemmestyreloven [Addendum 1 to the Home Rule Act], item 3, https://www.retsinformation. dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=168699, archived at https://perma.cc/UZB9-J5BX.

[18] Id. item 5.

[19] Id. item 9.

[20] Home Rule Act § 4.

[21] Exercising their right to self-governance as specified in Addendum 1, item 1 to the Home Rule Act, supra note 17.

[22] Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, in Commission of the European Communities, Status of Greenland [hereinafter Commission Report] (Feb. 22, 1983), at 5, Bulletin of the European Communities Supp. 1/833, http://aei.pitt.edu/5173/1/5173.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/8LPA-5CNB.

[23] Treaty Amending, with Regard to Greenland, the Treaties Establishing the European Communities, 1985 O.J. (L 29) 1, http://naalakkersuisut.gl/~/media/Nanoq/Files/Attached Files/Bruxelles/EU and Greenland/The European Union and Greenland/Greenland Treaty eng.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/Z6P7-6WBX.

[24] Id.

[25] The Greenland Treaty of 1985, Naalakkersuisut [Greenlandic Parliament], http://naalakkersuisut.gl/en/ Naalakkersuisut/Greenland-Representation-to-the-EU/European-Union-and-Greenland/The-Greenland-Treaty-of-1985 (last visited Apr. 21, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/M8J7-J7YQ.

[26] Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, supra note 22, at 5.

[27] As cited in Loukacheva, supra note 5, at 115. 

[28] Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, supra note 22, at 6–7.

[29] Id.  For background, see Mason, supra note 14.

[30] Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, supra note 22, at 10.

[31] Loukacheva, supra note 5, at 116, 195 n.56.

[32] Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, supra note 22, at 10.  The aid was received from the European Social Fund (ESF) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).  Commission Report, supra note 22, at 16. 

[33] Commission Report, supra note 22, at 16.

[34] The euro did not come into existence until 1999.

[35] Commission Report, supra note 22, at 17.

[36] Id. at 18.

[37] Id.

[38] Id. at 16–21.

[39] Id. at 23.

[40] Id. at 38, 42.

[41] Mason, supra note 14, at 874.

[42] Agreement on Fisheries between the European Economic Community, on the One Hand, and the Government of Denmark and the Local Government of Greenland, on the Other (1985 Agreement on Fisheries) arts. 2(1), 6 & 8, 1985 O.J. (L 29) 9, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:21985A0201(01)&from=EN, archived at https://perma.cc/A8LC-RE8C.  Article 2(1) of the Agreement provides the right to fish, article 6 establishes Greenland’s right to be paid, and article 8 addresses the right of EEC Members to have special priority and get additional quotas (supplementary catch possibilities).

[43] Id.

[44] General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT 1947), Oct. 30, 1947, 55 U.N.T.S. 194, art. XI(2)(a), https://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/gatt47_01_e.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/283T-BA7Z.  At the time, Greenland was part of Denmark and therefore subject to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

[45] The Greenland Treaty of 1985, Naalakkersuisut, supra note 25.

[46] Commission Report, supra note 22, at 12.

[47] Protocol on Special Arrangements for Greenland to the Treaty Amending, with regard to Greenland, the Treaties Establishing the European Communities art. 3, 1985 O.J. (L 29) 1; see also Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs), European Commission, http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/regions/octs_en (last visited Apr. 17, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/G7ED-C2LM.

[48] Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, supra note 22, at 20.

[49] Greenland Representation to the EU, Brussels, Naalakkersuisut, http://naalakkersuisut.gl/en/Naalakker suisut/Greenland-Representation-to-the-EU (last visited Apr. 21, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/3FCB-C786.

[50] Agreement on Fisheries, supra note 42, art. 6.  Payment amounted to ECU 26.5 million, about US$28.4 million.  Protocol on the Conditions Relating to Fishing Between the European Economic Community, on the One Hand, and the Government of Denmark and the Local Government of Greenland, on the Other [Protocol to Agreement on Fisheries] art. 3(1), 1985 O.J. (L 29) 14, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.L_.1985. 029.01.0014.01.ENG&toc=OJ:L:1985:029:TOC, archived at https://perma.cc/W6GH-WUHK.

[51] Compare Danish Government Memorandum of 19 May 1982, supra note 22, with Agreement on Fisheries, supra note 42.

[52] Mason, supra note 14, at 873.

[54] Selvstyrets indførelse, Naalakkersuisut, http://Naalakkersuisut.gl/da/Naalakkersuisut/Selvstyre (last visited Apr. 18, 2017), archived athttps://perma.cc/TB34-RUDT; Den grønlandske selvstyreordning, Statsministeriet, http://www.stm.dk/_a_2566.html (last visited Apr. 17, 2018), archived athttps://perma.cc/V6PM-UNE4.

[55] Selvstyrets indførelse, Naalakkersuisut, supra note 54.

[56] Act on Greenland’s Self-Governance § 7, supra note 9.

[57] Vejledning om ministeriers behandling af sager vedrørende Grønland, VEJ nr 58 af 02/07/2012, https://www.retsinformation.dk/Forms/R0710.aspx?id=142582, archived athttps://perma.cc/J2GS-7RED.

[58] See Joint Declaration by the European Union, on the One Hand, and the Government of Greenland and the Government of Denmark, on the Other, on Relations between the European Union and Greenland, Mar. 19, 2015, https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/signed-joint-declaration-eu-greenland-denmark_en.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/NUL5-5KDN

[59] E.g., Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Community, on the One Hand, and the Government of Denmark and the Home Rule Government of Greenland, on the Other Hand, 2007 O.J. (L 172) 4, http://naalakkersuisut.gl/~/media/Nanoq/Files/Attached%20Files/Bruxelles/EU%20and%20Greenland/Fisheries/4%20
Fisheries%20Agreement.pdf
, archived at https://perma.cc/8C9V-24JS; Protocol Setting Out the Fishing Opportunities and Financial Contribution Provided for in the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Community on the One Hand, and the Government of Denmark and the Home Rule Government of Greenland, on the Other Hand, 2012 O.J. (L 293) 5, http://naalakkersuisut.gl/~/media/Nanoq/Files/Attached%20Files/Bruxelles/ EU%20and%20Greenland/Fisheries/4%20Protocol%2020132015%20ENG.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/6KZU-99EL; Joint Declaration, supra note 58.

[60] Fisheries Partnership Agreement, supra note 59, art. 12.

[61] Protocol Setting Out the Fishing Opportunities, supra note 59, art. 1.2.

[62] Grønland: Fiskeripartnerskabsaftale, Europa-Kommissionen, Fiskeri, https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/cfp/ international/agreements/greenland_da (in Danish; last visited Apr. 17, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/TQ6D-CL4C; Rådets Afgørelse (EU) 2015/2103 af 16. november 2015 om undertegnelse på Den Europæiske Unions vegne og midlertidig anvendelse af protokollen om fastsættelse af de fiskerimuligheder og den finansielle modydelse, der er omhandlet i fiskeripartnerskabsaftalen mellem Det Europæiske Fællesskab på den ene side og den danske regering og det grønlandske landsstyre på den anden side, 2015 O.J. (L 305) 1, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/da/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32015D2103&qid=1462893502419 (in Danish), archived at https://perma.cc/D4DV-6SAV; Council Decision (EU) 2015/2103 of 16 November 2015, on the Signing on Behalf of the European Union and Provisional Application of the Protocol Setting Out the Fishing Opportunities and Financial Contribution Provided For in the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Community, on the One Hand, and the Danish Government and Greenlandic Government, on the Other, 2015 O.J. (L 305) 1, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32015D2103&from=da, archived at https://perma.cc/2BZQ-WH24; Protocol Setting Out the Fishing Opportunities and the Financial Contribution Provided For by the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Community on the One Hand, and the Government of Denmark and the Home Rule Government of Greenland, on the Other Hand, 2015 O.J. (L 305) 3, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:22015A1121(01)&from=DA, archived at https://perma.cc/9VPE-QBFB.

[63] 1985 Agreement on Fisheries, supra note 42, art. 15.

[64] Grønland kan selv forhandle makrelkvote, FiskeriTidende.dk (Apr. 18, 2014), http://fiskeritidende. dk/groenland-kan-selv-forhandle-makrelkvote/, archived athttps://perma.cc/VH7C-MZU8; Rosa Thorsen, Grønland kan selv forhandle makrel, Sermitsiaq (Apr. 16, 2014), http://sermitsiaq.ag/groenland-kan-forhandle-makrel, archived athttps://perma.cc/V4MK-Z4YC.

[65] Programming Document for Sustainable Development of Greenland 2014–2020, https://ec.europa.eu/ europeaid/sites/devco/files/signed_programming_document_for_sustainable_development_of_greenland_2014-2020_colour.pdf (copy on file with author).