President 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.
“We are open for business, but we’re not for sale,” Greenland’s Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters.
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.
“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. 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.
Danish politicians from across the spectrum reacted with bewilderment, ridicule and outright anger over what they perceived to be a deeply inappropriate suggestion.
Trump’s interest in acquiring the massive island — technically located in North America but culturally and politically tied to Europe — was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday evening.
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.
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.