Proof of intent

UPDATE | A US concession to Greenland has opened the door to closer relations between the two countries

Their pick-up where they left off (📸: Jim Yungel / NASA)

Kevin McGwin

The US and Greenland have finalised a deal that will ensure that the firm that holds a contract to provide maintenance at the US air-force base at Pituffik (pictured above), in the far north-west of the country, contributes to Greenland’s economy, eliminating one of the biggest barriers to closer co-operation between Washington and Nuuk at a time when the US is playing catch-up in the Arctic.

The agreement, signed on Wednesday, establishes a long list of requirements for firms tendering a bid when the multi-year contract comes up for renewal in 2024, including being headquartered in Greenland, locating management there and placing a majority of its ownership in Danish or Greenlandic hands.

The agreement to alter the rules is a win for Greenland, which is part owner of the firm that, in 2017 had to hand over the contract to provide maintenance at Thule Air Base, estimated in its current iteration to be worth 250 million kroner ($40 million) annually, after holding it for 46 years.

SEE RELATED: Nuuk: Thule Air Base not contributing enough to economy

While the contract was in Greenlandic hands, it was one of the country’s most important sources of income. Kim Kielsen, Greenland’s premier, said the agreement was a foundation for closer relations with the US and would go a long way towards making sure that Washington compensates Greenland in some form for using its land.

“It has been important for Naalakkersuisut (the elected government, ed), Inatsisartut (the national assembly, ed) and the people of Greenland that there are real and tangible benefits to the American presence.”

Changing the agreement comes amidst efforts by Washington to strengthen its relationship with Greenland at a time when America has been seeking to find a footing in the region in order to keep up with Russia and to block non-Arctic China from gaining influence.

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In a Tweet after yesterday’s signing, Robert C O’Brien, a member of the White House National Security Council, which advises the president on national security and foreign policy, highlighted the ways Washington has sought to court Greenland in recent years.

“The United States is establishing a strategic partnership with Denmark. We are also expanding our partnership with Greenland through our consulate in Nuuk, including in trade, investment, education, and security,” the Tweet (below) says.

Greenland, a self-governing country that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, is seeking to wean itself politically and economically from Copenhagen and has welcomed the attention Washington has shown it. But, it has long made clear that making sure Greenland benefits economically from the US presence at Pituffik is one of its main priorities.

“This has been a matter of fundamental importance for Greenland, seeing as the American base is on land we have made available,” Steen Lynge, the foreign minister, said.

By all but ensuring that a  Greenlandic firm wins the tender, Washington, suggests Jon Rabhek-Clemmensen, an academic with Forsvarsakademiet, the Danish defence college, is showing that it takes Greenlandic concerns about its presence there seriously while also helping to strengthen its position in the region.

“The money would need to be spent anyway, but here they are making sure that Greenland gets something out of it,” he said. “This demonstrates that Greenland is very important from the US perspective.”

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In keeping with American policy, Washington does not pay compensation to Greenland for using the land occupied by Thule Air Base, which was established in the early 1950s in the area known as Pituffik after its residents were forcibly relocated.

Starting in 1971, and until 2017, a firm called Greenland Contractors was paid by the Pentagon to provide maintenance and other civilian services on the base. In addition to hiring about 500 people to work at Thule, Greenland Contractors also provided traineeships for young Greenlanders.

In the most recent tender, in 2014, however, Greenland Contractors lost to Vectrus Services, a Danish subsidiary of an American-owned firm known then as Exelis. Greenland considered the decision to be a violation of the terms of an agreement requiring the contract-holder to be a Danish or a Greenlandic firm and long lobbied for the decision to be changed.

In 2015, Greenlandic Contractors, together with two other firms involved in the tender, took the matter to a court in the US. After winning in a lower court, the tender was ruled valid by a federal appeals court, thus ending their challenge.

With yesterday’s agreement, Washington, it seems, has giveth back what had been taken away.

Correction: This article previously stated that Greenland Contractors employed 40 people at Thule Air Base.

Published in collaboration with Polar Journal.

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