One of the lesser-known facts about the Referendum on continuing membership of the European Union is that a UK withdrawal would not be the first time that a territory has left what we now know as the European Union. The scale and interconnectedness of a British withdrawal would indeed be a far more seismic event than the previous withdrawals of Algeria (upon seceding from France in 1962, it left then very much embryonic European Economic Community), Greenland (which was part of the European Communities’ territory from Denmark’s accession in 1973 through to Greenland’s withdrawal in 1985) following a referendum in the wake of a dispute over fisheries, and most recently, Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin that both seceded from Guadelope (itself a Département Outre-Mer (overseas département of France)) back in 2007, and ceased to be an Outer Most Region (OMR) of the EU.
In terms of these three cases, the Greenland case is perhaps the most interesting, even though Greenland is currently only about 103rd in the rankings of the EU’s most important trading partners. The Greenland situation began practically before Denmark’s membership of the EEC. Previously in the Danish referendum to join the EU, Denmark as a whole had voted to join, although Greenland had a majority voting (approx. 70%) against EEC membership. Following the establishment of home rule in 1979, a new referendum was held after the Siumut (Forward) party (anti European) won the first elections that year (of a registered electorate of just under 28,700 only 19,951 voted, and some 1,508 votes were spoilt!), and again the majority were in favour of being against (continuing) EEC Membership. Following issues about fishing rights it finally left the EEC in 1985, but nevertheless remains subject to the EU treaties by means of association of Overseas Countries and Territories with the (now) EU.
A further point to mention was the European Parliament elections in Greenland – held in 1979 and 1984 – both returning a single Siumut MEP, Finn Lynge. On both occasions turnout was only around one-third of eligible voters and following the seceding of Greenland from the European Community on 1 January 1985, the seat held by Lynge was transferred to the Danish Socialist People’s Party (the election having been part of the European Parliament elections for Danish MEPs). Lynge was Greenlandic – born in Nuuk and having initially trained to become a priest he had a change of heart, got married and became a politician. Much of his latter political career was spent championing indigenous issues.
The “Greenland Treaty” was how it was all done and dusted in the case of Greenland – the treaties of the European Communities being revised to no longer extend to Greenland. Historically it all seems rather simple, reading through a relatively succinct set of amendments to the Treaties of the European Communities. The reality was far from it – even though fishing rights was the only policy area that was really at stake in relation to Greenland. The referendum that sealed Greenland’s fate was held in 1982 and this single area of policy (granted one of significant importance for Greenland’s economy) took two and a half years to unravel. Despite the fact that the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty now allow (Article 50) for a Member State to leave the European Union, the chances that a bloc of the European Union leaving that has a more far-reaching impact than Greenland, the chances are that the exit cannot be achieved in the time-frame set out in Article 50.