“We need to collaborate with Denmark, but in a more equal way”
Duroyan Fertl interviews Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, Member of the Danish Parliament for Inuit Ataqatigiit
In Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), the radical left party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (‘Community of the People’) won a landslide election last year, taking 37 percent of the vote and 12 of the 31 seats in the Inatsisartut (Greenlandic parliament). The past year has proved difficult, however, leading to a change in coalition partners. Meanwhile the country faces multiple challenges, balancing economic development and social justice with action on climate change and environmental protection, and an evolving global security situation, where Denmark still controls all foreign affairs and defence powers. Duroyan Fertl interviews Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, Member of the Danish Parliament for Inuit Ataqatigiit.
Your party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), won Greenland’s snap elections in April last year. What have IA’s experiences as a left party in government been over this time?
The main focus for the nearly a year was on collaborating with our coalition partners Naleraq, which is a party even more left-wing than us but which also very much focused on achieving independence for Greenland and doing so much sooner than for us at IA.
Independence is, of course, something that is natural for the people of Greenland to think about - looking at history you can see that we could have been independent already in 1953 when we became an equal party (at least on paper) with Denmark.
The focus has been very much on independence, as well as on how we can play a different role in foreign affairs. We have a saying: “nothing about us without us”, meaning that every time something concerning Greenland or the Arctic is being discussed in the Danish parliament (which has authority over our foreign affairs) it should be with Greenlandic involvement.
So, we have been focusing very much on these issues. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for us with Naleraq. It’s been kind of chaotic and there’s been quite an internal focus, I would say, on this collaboration.
You recently changed coalition partners, from Naleraq to the social democratic party, Siumut. Were there other policy reasons for changing coalition partners, or was it mainly the independence issue?
I think it was mostly about the attitude towards Denmark. I think both for Siumut and for IA we understand that we need to collaborate with Denmark, but we need to do it in a much more equal way.
We need to make sure that we have a good collaboration and talk respectfully to each other. This is something that is very natural for us in Inuit Ataqatigiit but not necessarily for Naleraq.
For this reason, foreign affairs - especially the relationship towards Denmark, but also towards the United States - is something that has been filling a lot of headlines in the Greenlandic newspapers.
So now we have changed to Siumut as a coalition partner. Hopefully now we’ll be able to focus much more on the external political issues that we need to deal with.
Greenland is already being affected by climate change, and one promise of the new IA government last year was to sign the Paris Agreement treaty on climate change. With the new coalition, however, this decision was postponed. Could you explain the change?
Siumut has been much more reluctant about signing the Paris Agreement, and they would like to have even more information on how this will affect the economy of Greenland, and the obligations that Greenland will have. So, of course we have to take the time for that process.
Many of us in Inuit Ataqatigiit will keep pushing to ensure that Greenland signs the Agreement, because the temperature in the Arctic is rising at four times the rate of the rest of the world, and it’s really affecting everyday life in Greenland.
We don’t see this as only a threat - we also see it as something we need to adapt to, and something we would like to take global responsibility for, together with all the other countries who have signed the Paris agreement.
Greenland’s economy is largely based on fishing, but many see mining, for example, as a path to greater economic and political independence. How are you balancing the need for environmental protection and social justice with aspirations for economic growth and greater autonomy?
I would say that economic development in particular is something that we need to do better in Greenland. People are always asking us about independence - is it going to be tomorrow, or in five years, or in ten years - but there are so many areas in which we are still struggling with governing in the right way.
For example, healthcare, the social sector and education, which are the very core of a welfare society. You have a focus on these issues, especially if you want to tackle the inequality that there is right now in Greenland.
We have inequality at the same rate as in the United States. As a left-wing party, it’s very important for us to focus, not only on strengthening the economy, but also on the educational level of people from Greenland, for example, in order to make sure that this society is thriving in the future.
I think this is even more important than focusing on the end goal, which is independence. We need to focus very much on strengthening the people living in Greenland first and foremost, and on strengthening the economy so we have enough money to fund welfare in Greenland - a social sector, health and education.
Despite Greenland’s autonomy, Denmark retains control of foreign affairs and defence powers, and there has also been a US military base at Thule since the 1940s. As Greenland and the Arctic become increasingly central to global politics because of global warming, what is IA’s position on the presence of foreign troops and issues such as the NATO alliance?
I would say Inuit Ataqatigiit, and most other parties in Greenland, support membership of NATO - something we have being through a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. I think this is quite new, and I think the war in Ukraine has pushed opinion in that direction.
This is a change I have actually been seeing over a couple of years, and I think if you ask an average person in the street in Greenland they would say we don’t want foreign troops but think it’s a good thing be members of NATO.
It’s up to the members of NATO to make sure that the focus should be on defence of all the members participating in NATO, but it should be a defensive alliance, not offensive.
Some of us are quite scared about what’s going on, but again, I think if you talk to someone on the street, they wouldn’t be. There was a survey done recently by the University of Greenland showing people were more concerned about inequality in Greenlandic society, and the economic situation, than about the great powers - China, Russia and the US - showing an interest in Greenland.
This was done before the war in Ukraine, so it would be interesting to see if anything has shifted - as I’m sure it has - but I think it’s more everyday things that people are focusing on, rather on than foreign affairs.
Of course, it’s up to us as politicians to be concerned, and also to be prepared in a much more uncertain global security situation, and here I think NATO membership is something that’s important for us if something were to happen in the Arctic.
I was recently in NATO headquarters with my colleagues from Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and we feel that the focus on the “High North” - as they call the Arctic - was higher before the war in Ukraine, and attention has shifted to Ukraine, Russia and that region.
For us this is actually a good thing because the focus should be on defence. Even having NATO troops in Greenland could be viewed in Russia in a different way, and I would much rather have Danish authorities in Greenland for defence purposes instead of NATO.
This is not where we are right now, and we are watching what Finland and Sweden are doing and how this will affect the Arctic, because there is no doubt the war in Ukraine is affecting the Arctic.
This can be seen with the Arctic Council, where I’m chair of the Arctic Parliamentarians committee. I’m always talking to my colleagues and we need to navigate in these very difficult diplomatic waters to make sure that people in Denmark also understand that we in Greenland might view Russia differently than Denmark does.
So, there might be three different interests within the Realm that we need to focus on - not looking only at the war right now, but afterwards. Russia is a key player when it comes to the Arctic and we should have collaboration with Russia after the war - although right now it is unacceptable.
I think these nuances are important for Denmark to understand, because they make the final decisions on our behalf in Foreign Affairs matters and they need to understand our point of view as well.
Finally, could you briefly outline what you see as the main challenges and goals of the IA government in the coming period, and how it intends to address them?
We adopted a strategy prior to the election last year. I was involved in writing it on behalf of the party and I spoke to many people in the party in different positions.
It’s essential for us that we have a “red” agenda, we have a “green” agenda and we have a “blue” agenda.
The red agenda is about healthcare, the social sector and education; the green is about climate and nature, which is very important for us; and the blue one is about strengthening the economy.
We have already discussed most of this, I think, but looking at the blue agenda, we need to diversify the economy in Greenland. As you know the export of fisheries to Russia is around 15 percent of Greenland’s total exports, so it is important for us to find new markets.
There is a focus on building a market in Europe, as well as in the United States, and looking at how we can both strengthen the fishing industry in Greenland, which makes up 95 percent of exports, while also strengthening the mineral sector, the extractive industry - and tourism too - so we are standing on more legs, rather than just the one leg of fisheries.
This is an important priority for us right now.
Aaja Chemnitz Larsen is a member of Danish Parliament for the party Inuit Ataqatigiit, holding one of two seats representing Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). She is also chair of the Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region (SCPAR).