President Donald Trump faced a fierce European backlash to his reported interest in acquiring Greenland from Denmark, as some lawmakers compared the idea to colonialism on Friday while officials on the island said they welcome investment but not a new owner.
“Of course, Greenland is not for sale,” Greenland’s government said in a statement, echoing earlier remarks by Greenland’s Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger.
In its statement, the government said it viewed the reports “as an expression of greater interest in investing in our country and the possibilities we offer.”
In Denmark, which counts the autonomous Greenland as part of its territory, the reaction to Trump’s apparent interest in the strategically located island was far less diplomatic with some politicians characterizing the idea as a joke.
Danish politicians from across the spectrum reacted with bewilderment, ridicule and outright anger over what they perceived to be a deeply inappropriate suggestion.
“The whole idea that another country could buy Greenland – like it should be a colony – is so strange to us,” said Michael Aastrup Jensen, a member of the Danish parliament with the influential center-right Venstre party.
Another member of his party, former Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, chimed in on Twitter, writing: “It must be an April Fool’s Day joke.”
“The Greenlandic people have their own rights,” Martin Lidegaard, the chairman of the Danish parliament’s foreign policy committee and former foreign minister told The Washington Post. “I hope it is a joke – to not just buy a country but also its people.”
Greenland’s fewer than 60,000 residents – spread out across roughly 840,000 square miles – mostly govern themselves, even though they are part of the kingdom of Denmark. Melting ice could uncover offshore oil resources.
But Greenland has also long been of interest to past American administrations because of its location between the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans, where both China and Russia are increasingly active militarily.
The news of Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland comes ahead of a planned visit to the Danish capital of Copenhagen next month. Danes are worried this will derail the agenda of Trump’s trip.
“It will suck the oxygen out of the room and it will take over everything,” said Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, a professor at the Institute for Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College,
Even though Trump’s own senior aides are baffled by the idea and are unsure whether to take it seriously, the notion is not without precedent.
Trump is not the first U.S. president to consider such an offer – the Truman administration reportedly offered Denmark $100 million for Greenland’s purchase after World War II. Still, Danes appeared shocked on Friday that the same suggestion could still come up in 2019.
Trump’s interest in acquiring the massive island – technically located in North America but culturally and politically also tied to Europe – was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday evening.
The idea has touched a nerve in Greenland, which has long sought complete independence. Denmark has ruled the island for nearly three hundred years, although it granted Greenland a degree of autonomy in 1979 and complete self-governance in 2009. Still Copenhagen maintains control over defense and foreign affairs.
Greenlanders have since pushed for even greater independence, breaking from the European Union in 1985 to protect its fishing industry. Fishing makes up 90 percent of Greenland’s exports, according to Arctic Today.
Rahbek-Clemmensen described independence as the “raison d’etre” of Greenland politics. All but one of Greenland’s political parties support full independence from Denmark, he said – and the debate now centers not on if, but when Greenland will achieve it.
The United States has long had a military footprint in Greenland because of its strategic location in the Arctic. After the end of the Cold War, however, its significance faded.
But recent efforts by China and Russia to expand their foothold in the region triggered a policy shift under the Obama administration toward a more active U.S. role there.
“They really, really need to get foreign investments to build an economic foundation to become independent one day,” Rahbek-Clemmensen said. “This is where China comes in. Basically China has been very bullish in making investments in mining and infrastructure in Greenland.”
Apart from Greenland’s nationalist party – which is pushing for full independence by 2021 – most Greenlanders recognize that it is unlikely the island will get on the economic footing necessary for a clean break from Denmark anytime soon, according to Rasmus Leander Nielsen, a political scientist at the University of Greenland who has surveyed Greenland public opinion.
Damien Degeorges, a Reykjavík-based consultant specializing in Greenlandic affairs, said that Trump’s interest in Greenland was not irrational. The idea to acquire Greenland, he said, could be read as: “Let’s buy it before the Chinese do.”
“What Greenland wants is money from investments, to develop their economy,” said Degeorges, noting that Europe and the United States had not shown as much interest in the island as China.
“I would not take it literally,” he said of Trump’s idea, but rather as an indication of the American president’s engagement on the issue of China’s expansion.
In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “we’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in the region.”
When Beijing recently attempted to fund infrastructure projects in Greenland, the U.S. government voiced concerns.
But Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, the former head of the Strategy and Policy Office in the Danish Ministry of Defense, warned that Trump – if serious about the idea of purchasing the island – was risking unraveling years of American efforts in Greenland.
The United States had so far smartly positioned itself between Denmark and Greenland, where some have advocated for full independence, said Rasmussen. Mistaking the territory’s independence movement as an opportunity to purchase it, however, would be a miscalculation of Greenland’s aspirations.
“Greenlanders imagine themselves as independent people,” said Rasmussen, adding that citizens’ interest in obtaining a status “like Puerto Rico” was unlikely.
The key question now, he said, was whether Trump tasking his advisers to look into purchasing the island was in fact a real change in U.S. strategy.
That strategy has so far been more focused on upholding its military footprint in Greenland, while staying clear of the political crossfire between Denmark and Greenland.
“If you start treating Greenland as real estate without asking the people, then that strategy is in serious trouble,” said Rasmussen.