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Who really benefits from the EU Commission’s drive to deliver Greenland a quota?

With apologies to Abba Eban, one used to be able to say that ‘the EU could always be counted on to do the right thing…but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities’.

And, whilst that particular line is a cliché applied to many nations and institutions, it’s normally true in my experience in respect to the EU. However, when it comes to Greenlandic whaling, it appears that the EU Commission has hoisted upon its head blinkers of its own crafting and appears somewhat determined to put the interests of one Member State’s non-EU overseas territory ahead of both the other EU Member States and the future of whale conservation.

Over the last year, in a systematic campaign, the EU Commission has ridden rough shod over the views of the European civil society and a significant number of EU Member States in their drive to deliver tonnes of whale meat for one Member State, Denmark, and by default, the many tourists that visit its overseas territory, Greenland.

In 2012, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), amid rising concern over the increased commercialisation of what had once been Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) in Greenland, asked Denmark to reconsider its application for an increased quota of large whales for hunting in Greenland. The IWC, including many EU members, questioned the actual journey’s end for much of the whale meat. Was it destined for people who had traditionally needed and subsisted on whale meat, or were increasing numbers of whales being caught for commercial trade with some being sold to tourists and non-indigenous peoples? The IWC has always understood that some limited monetary exchange takes place in ASW communities, but hunting whales for commercial profit through sales to non-indigenous people is not within the normal understanding of the classification of ASW within the IWC.

English language advert for whale meatPresented with the opportunity to review their application, and despite knowing that he would loose the vote, the then Danish representative to the IWC pushed ahead in demanding that the IWC vote on Greenland’s increased demands. In a blaze of mystifying self-immolation, the Danish representative forced the vote and reaped the subsequent loss of international quotas for Greenlandic hunters.

The only people that were likely to suffer from this disasterous stand, were those in Greenland that do have a legitimate claim to a quota, and the EU Commission that felt highly embarrassed and slighted that they had not been able to control Denmark in this moment of lemming-like cliff-surfing.  

So what do you think the consequences would be? That the EU Commission would take the Danes to task for breaking ranks with the rest of the EU in putting the interests of a few middle men in a non-EU country Greenland before the interests of the rest of the EU, the whales, and the actual indigenous hunters? Well that’s what any rational observer could have expected, but oh no, not in this case.

In fact the EU Commission decided that, – with what may have been a case of EU staff seeking to avoid embarrassing their Slovenian EU Commissioner at the helm of DG Environment in Brussels, and the next IWC taking place in Slovenia in September 2014 – it was the rest of the EU that would have to knuckle under and accept whatever Denmark and Greenland wanted.

Denmark, in an example of ‘exemplary’ diplomacy upped the stakes by threatening to leave the IWC if they were not granted their demands in full. That this would have placed the Danes in an impossible position with respect to EU law did not appear to have even occurred to the EU Commission, whose diplomatic Rottweilers were launched into the melee of the EU seemingly with the sole mandate to deliver for Denmark’.

So we may have expected these EU Commission ‘specialists’ to have gone off to fully research the issues and then come to some conclusions about what sort of compromise should be considered. For example, we may have expected them to consider ‘should Greenland be able to get away with stating that it cannot distinguish between indigenous people and non-native peoples for whaling purposes despite the fact that they had to, as recently as 2009, to enable Greenland to continue exporting seal products into the EU?’ Or ‘what was happening when whales were being killed to fulfil the larders of tourist cafes and restaurants?’ Maybe they did research the issue thoroughly, but it seems politics won out in the end.

No, it would seem the EU Commission were happy to bow to the political demands of a single Member State and its non-EU overseas territory.

After two years of what amounts to non-IWC sanctioned pirate whaling in Greenland, the final proposal to deliver Greenland a quota for adoption by the EU Member States of the IWC in advance of the IWC meeting amounts to, well almost what they wanted in the first place. Yes, some good lobbying by the few EU Member States that were willing to stand up to the EU Commission, meant that some elements were slightly modified, but basically Greenland gets almost all it wanted.

The EU Commission, despite evidence that the final proposal that they were championing would risk opening doors to commercial whaling at the IWC, appear to have decided that the interests of one Member State held hostage by it’s overseas territory and the EU Commission’s own interests in extending their political and functional power over the EU Member States outweighed any concerns over whales or the future of the IWC Moratorium. The internal political drive to extend ‘competency creep’ seems to have infected EU Commission civil servants in this matter like some zombie plague sweeping through their ranks, and nothing was going to stand in their way of wrestling further competency away from EU Member States. That fact that whales are not fish (and therefore not subject to EU Commission ‘exclusive competency’) seems to have escaped their attention, or else they have been listening to the Japanese pro-whaling rhetoric too much!

So we find ourselves today with the EU championing a ‘package’ of proposals that includes a set of arguments made by Greenland (a Needs Statement) that states its up to Greenland to decide who can hunt and eat whales, and even goes so far as to argue that they have the right to commercialise the hunt as they see fit; a Danish quota request for Greenland (a Schedule Amendment) that delivers the tonnage of whale meat that Greenland always wanted, but will never completely use (until commercial pressures make it viable to do so); and a request for further policy work to be carried out within the IWC (a resolution) that delivers the process changes that Greenland demands, including instructions to deliver a brand new catch calculation system that could potentially allow them to catch more species and more whales in the future; and, as some will argue,  an acceptance to overturn the current IWC protocol that says its the right of countries to bring an ASW application to the IWC, but its the right of the IWC to decide who qualifies for a quota and what that quota should be.

So who wins in all this? Not the whales, and not the true ASW hunters in Greenland, as this proposal effectively opens the door to commercial pressures that will continue to squeeze them and their needs in the coming years.

I would predict now that, just like in Iceland where a tiny percentage of the whales caught are actually consumed by Icelanders, and most whale meat is exported, – tourists are the ‘iceing on the cake ‘ fuelling the selfishness of one or two individuals who are profiting from the hunts, – Greenland will increasingly look to whale and dolphin meat as a tourist luxury that can command high prices for the middle men who always come out of these situations richer whilst others suffer.

Indeed the official ‘Taste of Greenland’ promotional website claims that: 

‘The way to a travellers heart, is through their stomach?’

‘…a new generation of creative chefs have in recent years started working with contemporary gastronomic interpretations of meat from marine mammals. How would you like a whale burger with angelica dressing? Or an ice-cold whale carpaccio of fillet and mattak, garnished with thyme sorbet and crowberries? ‘

Whale meat freezers full in Nuuk, GreenlandBut the true winners, who might they be? Look no further that the Japanese delegation to the IWC who have submitted a proposal for a quota for its coastal whalers that looks pretty similar to that of Greenland.

Indeed in the Japanese proposal that was submitted days before the supposedly confidential EU proposal was made public, the Japanese proposition includes a suspicious number of ‘nods’ to the language of the Greenlandic Schedule Amendment, include noting the similarities in terms of ‘local consumption’, the level of commercialisation, and the right claimed by Greenland in that it, and it only, can decide who needs whale meat and not the IWC.

A quick check reveals that the Japanese Ambassador to Copenhagen, Seishi Suei, visited the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, from 1-4 July 2014. He was scheduled to meet both Aleqa Hammond, head of the Greenland Government and Finn Karlsen, the Minister of Fisheries, Agriculture and Hunting and they were to discuss, amongst other things, economic cooperation, cultural and research issues, exports of fisheries products, tourism and natural resources.

During his visit Seishi Suei spoke of the opportunities of increased exports to Japan including that of seal products[1].

WDC understands that the Japanese IWC team met with the Danish and Greenlandic IWC representatives in London during early June[2], and that the Japanese Foreign Minister of Japan meant with his Danish counterpart and the Greenlandic Premier during early May. Japan reported that the three countries discussed the issue of whaling and that,

 The three ministers agreed to continue to communicate closely based on the standpoint of supporting the sustainable utilization of marine biological resources, including Cetaceans’[3]

One of the many problems afflciting the IWC is that it mostly has a very short memory. Most country delegates only serve a few years and their institutional knowledge is often very low due to this high turnover in personnel. The recent austerity that has engulfed many countries also means that fewer civil servants are having to do much more  with even less resources.

Tourists arriving in Greenland to sample Greenlandic cultureThat’s why many may not realise that in 1985, Japan’s first request for a quota for its coastal whalers was actually under the ASW classification. People have argued with us since that ‘Japan would never ever contemplate making such an application under the ASW category as this would be demeaning’, but in the twenty odd years I have observed the machinations of the IWC, the one thing I do know is that the Japanese pro-whalers are quite happy to take any strategic opportunity that comes their way.

With the EU potentially serving commercialised ASW future quotas up on a plate, whilst tying EU Member States’ hands beyond their back, we have to hope that some other IWC Members realise the danger that the EU Commission has conjured up and seek to moderate its impact before Greenland becomes the key to resumed Japanese and international commercial whaling in the years to come.

You can follow the IWC meeting with reports from WDC


[2] pers comm.

[3] Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Available at: http://www.mofa.go.jp/erp/we/dk/page22e_000444.html, Accessed 31st July 2014