Foreign Policy

Greenland’s Uncommon-Earth Election

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Greenland votes in key legislative elections, “indirect” U.S.-Iran talks begin in Vienna, and EU leaders travel to Turkey. 

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Greenland’s Big Little Election

Voters in Greenland head to the polls today in legislative elections with uncharacteristically critical geopolitical implications.

At issue is a decision on whether to follow through on a rare-earth and uranium mine that would greatly boost the island’s economy. As Sam Dunning wrote in Foreign Policy in March, the mine already caused the government to fall in February, when a junior coalition partner quit after the majority Siumut party proposed halting public consultations for the mine’s extraction permit.

With the world’s largest undeveloped deposits of rare-earth minerals, Greenland has the potential to become a world leader in producing the materials essential to high-demand products like smartphones to military hardware like the F-35 fighter jet.

Geopolitical hotspot. Greenland is of interest to the United States and its allies as they have watched China race ahead as a rare-earth leader. Beijing now accounts for two-thirds of rare-earth mining and 90 percent of global production. Such is China’s dominance, the Quad nations of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States have begun talks on a rare-earth supply chain partnership.

The companies behind the proposed mine reflect the international interest in the metals. An Australian company, Greenland Minerals, has been preparing the site for the past 15 years, while a Chinese firm, Shenghe Resources—itself part-owned by the Chinese government—is Greenland Minerals’ main investor.

The mine has nationalistic appeal for the island, where independence from Denmark has been a long-sought goal. Although Greenland is largely autonomous, Denmark still currently pays half of the island’s budget, so any opportunity to build economic independence remains an attractive proposition.

Environmental concerns over radioactivity and pollution seem to be winning out among the country’s voters, however, with polls currently favoring the opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit, a democratic socialist party opposed to the mine.

What pandemic? Voters will cast ballots today in an atmosphere largely free of the coronavirus fears that have plagued the rest of the world. To date, Greenland has had no COVID-19 deaths nor related hospitalizations. Its total case count is 31, which, even considering its tiny population of 56,000 ranks it among the best performers in the world in taming the virus.

Wintry woes. Even so, all is not rosy in Greenland. Incidents of violence have skyrocketed over the past few year, jumping 46 percent from 2018 to 2020. Suicide rates are the highest in the world. And rapid migration from periphery towns to the capital, Nuuk, has also triggered an increase in homelessness, as housebuilding fails to keep up with the demand.

All of these problems require long term, intergenerational solutions, Steven Arnfjord, the head of the social sciences department at the University of Greenland, told Foreign Policy, which is something that a mine and its associations with independence, can’t remedy. “If you’re going to be dependent on mining rare-earths, that’s a 25-30 year spectrum. Then it’s drained out,” Arnfjord said. “Of course, mining can be a good deal, but I’ve yet to see a multinational mining company really doing it for the benefit of the country that they’re in.”

What We’re Following Today

Socially-distanced U.S.-Iran talks. Representatives from Iran and the United States will be in the same city, but not the same room, as indirect talks over a U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal begin today in Vienna. “We don’t anticipate an early or immediate breakthrough as these discussions, we fully expect, will be difficult,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday. Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, will lead talks from the U.S. side. Writing in Foreign Policy, James Traub observed of Malley that “there is nothing accidental about appointing a figure who so plainly favors diplomacy over military force for the one portfolio where that question has been most fiercely debated.”

Sudan clashes. Sudan’s government has declared a state of emergency in West Darfur state following tribal clashes that killed at least 40 people and injured a further 58. The fighting follows similar violence in January, when at least 129 people were killed and 108,000 people were displaced during fighting between members of the Masalit tribe and Arab tribes. The Sudanese government took responsibility for security in Darfur at the start of this year as the phased withdrawal of an international peacekeeping force begins.

Jordan’s royal rift. Jordan’s royal feud appears to be on the mend after Prince Hamzah signed a pledge of allegiance to King Abdullah II, following a meeting with the king’s uncle Prince Hassan. “In light of the developments of the past two days, I put myself at the disposal of His Majesty the King,” the letter signed by Prince Hamzah said. Members of the Jordanian royal family appear ready to put the public spat behind them.

Malik R. Dahlan, a professional mediator and friend of the royal family, appeared to place the blame elsewhere: “this regrettable incident was the result of the clumsy actions of a senior security official and misrepresentation by a government official,” Dahlan said in a statement, adding that “it should have remained a family matter.”

EU-Turkey meetings. European Council president Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen head to Turkey today for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they seek a framework for cooperation with their eastern neighbor. The EU leaders are likely to seek an extension to a 2016 agreement that effectively paid Turkey to keep migrants from Syria and elsewhere from entering the EU. The visit comes against the backdrop of Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women—a move that EU leaders widely condemned.

Navalny in sick bay. Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been moved to a sick ward and tested for the coronavirus after he said he had a high temperature and cough. Navalny’s medical treatment has become a point of protest for the dissident since he was imprisoned in late February. He has accused the prison authorities of providing substandard medical care and subjecting to him to sleep deprivation.

Chile delays election. The Chilean Senate has agreed to delay an election on choosing a commission to rewrite the country’s constitution as a surge in coronavirus cases threatens the country’s health system. If the decision is approved the lower house of Congress, the vote will be delayed by five weeks—taking place on May 15 or 16. Chile’s intensive care units are running at 95 percent occupancy as daily COVID-19 cases in the country have reached a new peak in recent days. The increased rate of infection has put pressure on President Sebastián Piñera: A recent poll showed just 38 percent of Chileans backed his coronavirus policy, versus 58 percent who said so in February.

Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, one could be forgiven for not quite being at one’s sharpest. That seems to have been the case for one Ethiopian Airlines pilot, who mistakenly landed a cargo plane at an unfinished airport instead of the scheduled destination, nine miles away. Although the airport in Zambia’s Copperbelt province is still under construction, the pilot landed safely.

The pilot’s flight caused confusion at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport, where he was due to land his cargo. “When he was about to land he was communicating with the radar, and they told him: ‘We can’t see you,’” Misheck Lungu, an official with Zambia’s transport ministry, told AFP, adding that the pilot instead landed the plane by sight.

That’s it for today.

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Photo credit: Christian Klindt Soelbeck/AFP

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