The confusion surrounding Brexit has further deepened this week with the EU handing Prime Minister Teresa May another ultimatum. Britain may have their deadline extended until the 22nd May if a majority of the House of Commons votes to approve the Withdrawal Agreement by next week. If this fails, the extension only runs until the 12th April and the UK would have to come back into the fold and stay in the Union before new plans are drawn up. Either way the UK will have to negotiate some deal with the EU in order to construct a workable future relationship. The exhaustive commentary on Brexit and its potential outcomes all point towards Britain’s future being very complex and uncertain. Yet, there is some precedent for a nation leaving and living on after the EU.
When Denmark joined the EEC in 1973, Greenland was still its colony. Due to the fact they were technically Danish citizens, the Greenland population had to comply when Denmark voted to join the EU, even though they had previously voted against joining. In 1979, the nation gained home rule and the aspiration to leave gathered momentum. Subsequently, in 1982, Greenland voted to leave the EEC by a 53 per cent majority.
Greenland’s desire to leave arose from the inhabitants’ concern over their fishing rights – under the EU they had less autonomy over how much they could catch and whom they could sell their primary export to. Leaving the EU meant they wouldn’t have to by the Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. At the time the population of Greenland was only 56,000 (compared to the UK’s 66 million). Yet, despite Greenland’s small population and its rudimentary political structures, the negotiations took three years before Greenland could finally leave. The whole process was fraught with acrimony and required over 100 meetings between diplomats and officials. Denmark originally submitted a proposal on letting Greenland leave but to secure this they had to make concessions. A specially tailored deal had to be made which preserved some of the EEC’s rights while allowing Greenland to have more control over fishing. The deal, interestingly, still stands today. Greenland also receives funding from the EU under the EU-Greenland Partnership.
Of course, there are numerous differences between Britain’s departure and Greenland’s. Britain has a much larger, more diversified economy and has more history with the EU due to its longer relationship. Britain also has to reckon with the complexity of the Northern Irish border along with Scotland’s ambition to leave the UK and re-join the EU.
These mounting difficulties indicate that Britain may have more than a bit reckless. As already noted, Greenland’s withdrawal took three years and their situation was much less onerous compared with Britain’s. Furthermore, despite Greenland leaving, they still retain a close relationship with the EU and their economy has not flourished beyond the fishing industry. There has even been recent discussion on whether Greenland should in fact re-join.
However, there are some more positive implications from Greenland’s withdrawal. Greenland still maintains its ties with Denmark, despite having left the EU. This may mean that Scotland, Gibraltar and even Northern Ireland could retain some relationship with the EU while maintaining some union with England and Wales. Denmark’s continued relationship has allowed Greenland to adapt to its independence without encountering too much difficulty. For those in Britain who desire sovereignty, this could be a good sign. Yet, this belies the fact that Greenlands’ departure was an outwardly simple one, miles apart from the UK’s continuous deluge of problems. Britain could very well find some way of accommodating Scotland and Northern Irelands’ needs just as Denmark did for Greenland. Yet Britain’s performance thus far, strongly suggests that it will be a while before it reaches such fabled greener pastures.
By Daniel Forde – Law Editor