Another Country Quit the EU Before the UK – and it Didn’t Go Well!

The UK isn’t the first nation to leave the European Union, Greenland, the largest island in the world, exited in 1982. Exit negotiations took three years of tough talks. It’s a scary precedent warns Fastlane International’s Head of Consumer Research, David Jinks MILT.


An island nation which originally joined the European Union (EU) in 1973 later voted by 52% to leave it, and was immediately engulfed in years of tough negotiations. No, I’m not talking about Britain, but Greenland. The autonomous constituent country of Greenland voted in 1982 to leave the EU; or to be pedantic the EEC (European Economic Community) as it was still known then.

Negotiations dragged on until 1985 and were a ‘surprisingly unpleasant job’, according to Greenland’s chief negotiator at the time, Lars Vesterbirk. The parallels between a nation that joined the EU at the same time the UK did, and voted to leave in the same proportion as UK voters did, are striking.

So how did ‘Greenxit’ go, 35 years ago? Slowly… Having voted for independence in 1982, Greenland finally left in 1985. It took well over 100 major meetings with EU officials for Greenland to extract itself from the EU, and the fact the talks were so divisive for an island with a population of just 56,000 doesn’t look promising for Britain’s negotiations.

Vesterbirk, Greenland’s former representative to the EU who led the negotiations, says: ‘If it took Greenland more than two years to negotiate, mainly on fisheries, in my eyes it will be an immense job for the UK and it will take many more years before they find a valid situation.’

A possible clue to how Britain’s negotiations will unfold lies with the fact that Vesterbirk reveals the main opposition to Greenland leaving came from Germany.

Germany at that time was worried that Greenland ‘depended too much’ on fisheries. Vasterbirk warns: ‘They were very tough on us, wanting to keep us inside.’


A political row

Was the result worth it? Another of Greenland’s negotiators, Lars-Emil Johansen, says there was a huge domestic political row after two years of negotiations when the proposed deal came ‘under attack by a broad part of the population who thought we sold ourselves too cheaply for our fishing rights’.

Replace fisheries with immigration as the key reason for leaving, and Britain could see a similar row. If the Government puts free access to European markets ahead of cutting immigration from EU countries, it won’t be too great a surprise if a similar argument occurs in two years!

And the final result turned out not to have entirely freed Greenland from Brussels regulations. On their key reason for voting leave, fishing rights, Greenland is no longer at the table when fisheries are discussed, but if they are to sell into the single-market – which they must – then every EU rule applies to them as much as it does to a full EU member.


The reasons for ‘Greenxit’

So how did ‘Greenxit’ come to take place?  Greenland, then an integral part of Denmark, joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 when Denmark did. But, like Britain, Greenland was always a luke-warm member, and after gaining Home Rule from Denmark in 1979 Greenland pushed to leave the EU.

Again, like the UK, it was reluctant to give up access to the EU market entirely despite wanting to leave the Community. Its final treaty, signed in 1985, called for ‘close and lasting links between the [European Economic] Community and Greenland to be maintained and mutual interests, notably the developments needs of Greenland, to be taken into account.” This rather mirrors the UK’s hopes to have its cake and still be able to eat it after Brexit.

Today, Greenland has a GDP of $2.16bn; and is reliant on fisheries, tourism and subsidies from Denmark. Its main export market is Denmark (62%). Denmark’s GDP is $295bn.

In terms of shipping, it costs 65% more to ship items to Greenland than Denmark from the UK (£29.48 to send the cheapest 10kg parcel to Greenland, as opposed to £17.85 to Denmark). To be fair, this difference is not solely due to lack of EU membership, but also because of Greenland’s more remote location.

Today, Greenland is one of 25 overseas countries and territories that are not EU members, but have a special partnership with the bloc. Another pointer to the future?


Getting over EU

It’s also not widely known that two other places have taken the EU exit door before the UK:


In 1962 Algeria seceded from France. Algeria had been considered a key part of the French Republic, and consequently became part of the EEC/EU after it was formed. When Algeria broke away from France one result was that it automatically left the EU. Interestingly, France still maintained the same representation to the European Parliamentary Assembly (36) even after losing Algiers!

Saint Barthélémy

Saint Barthélémy, a small Caribbean island, was until recently a part of the EU – because it belonged to the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. In 2007, however, Saint Barth’s – as it is often called – voted to secede from Guadeloupe.

Following this, the island called on France to review Saint Barth’s relationship with the EU, saying it wished to “obtain a European status which would be better suited to its status under domestic law, particularly given its remoteness from the mainland, its small insular economy largely devoted to tourism, and subject to difficulties in obtaining supplies which hamper the application of some European Union standards.’

In 2012, Saint Barthélémy withdrew from the European Union and joined instead the EU’s Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT) list.

In 2019 the UK is slated to join the list of EU leavers – by far the most significant economy ever to do so.







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