The fourth season of the popular Danish political series “Borgen – Dangerous Ropes” will be streamed online on June 2, 2022. It starts with blood immediately. The camera captures a dead whale lying off the coast of Greenland being dismembered by fishermen. Helicopter flying in front of them and landing in front of a mine. A man comes out, walks straight towards a group of miners, takes a small black lump and examines it. He says one phrase that will change everything: “Congratulations, you’ve found the oil!”
The world of television meets the real world. Greenland, the largest island in the world – eight times the size of Germany – is rich not only in ice, but also in raw materials such as oil, iron and rare earths. The deposits are hardly developed and the question is how and if mining with only 58,000 inhabitants can be managed.
In the fall of 2013, Parliament in Greenland repealed a decades-old ban on the exploitation of radioactive mineral resources such as uranium by a slim majority (15 to 14 votes). The law now allows companies to extract minerals from which uranium ore is a by-product. The rare earth deposits discovered in Greenland so far will cover about a fifth of global demand. However, mining of rare earth elements would be associated with severe environmental damage.
Specifically, Mount Kvanefjeld is about 690 meters high near the town of Narsaq on the southern tip of the Arctic Island. The potential annual yield is estimated at 40,000 tons of rare earth elements. About a fifth will also occur as uranium ore as a byproduct. That amount would catapult Greenland to the top ten uranium ore miners in the world in one fell swoop. However, in addition to the expected environmental problems, this also entails a number of legal and political issues that cannot be resolved. Due to the special status of Greenland under constitutional law, the control or distribution of radioactive materials obtained in this way is not regulated. At the end of 2021, the newly elected Greenland government passed a kind of law on uranium mining in a narrow vote: where uranium occurs, but below a certain limit, other raw materials may be mined.
Greenland has been part of Denmark for more than 300 years, but the relationship with the motherland has undergone tremendous changes, especially in the past few decades. Since 1953, the island has been an equal part of Denmark with two members of the Danish Parliament. Greenland has enjoyed “internal autonomy” since 1979, i.e., extensive self-determination within the Danish state. “Autonomy” was also introduced in 2009, and Greenland, among other things, obtained the right to its own raw materials. Only foreign and security policy is determined by Copenhagen.
As if all this were not enough in terms of special features, Greenland also has a special status in relation to the European Union. When Denmark became a member of the European Community in 1973, Greenland also became part of the European Community. In 1985, Greenland decided to give up its membership in the European Commission. Since then, a separate treaty in Greenland has regulated relations with the European Union. This is accompanied by annual payments from Brussels to Greenland – on the one hand to pay for fishing rights, but in recent years increasingly also to finance the development of Greenland. In the current seven-year EU budget, €220 million has been allocated to Greenland in this way. These revenues, along with generous annual budget allocations from Copenhagen, form the backbone of Greenland’s autonomy.
In view of this situation – large deposits of undeveloped raw materials, a small population, no viable economy of its own – it is understandable that Greenland is increasingly becoming the focus of geopolitical actors. In real politics as in the fictional world of television.
Two years ago, the Swedish-Icelandic-Greenland “thin ice” chain explored what happens when it finds a promising oil field off the coast of Greenland. By the way, a few weeks ago we managed to convince ourselves of the successful implementation of this project when the series was shown on German free TV. In this series, current issues of climate change, Greenland’s path to independence, and the protection and exploitation of the Arctic come into conflict. In it, the Swedish foreign minister is trying to persuade the Arctic Council to ban oil production there. Your political advisor is on a Swedish research ship off Greenland, which is being targeted by a terrorist attack.
Fantasy meets reality
The relationship between television fiction and actual politics is particularly interesting here. After all, the “Arctic Council” is the current regional forum of the Arctic states, which serves both for cooperation and coordination of the Common Arctic Policy.
With Greenland, the new ‘Borgen’ series now launched not only addresses current political issues, but is also a return to its beginnings. The relationship between Denmark and Greenland was already a topic in season one. At that time it was about photos of a CIA plane with prisoners from Afghanistan that landed in Greenland. The alleged terrorists inside turned out to be innocent peasants who had been kidnapped by the CIA. Then someone else says that real political events cannot be treated in an interesting way on TV.
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