Denmark is on the verge of an agreement with Greenland's Eskimos that will tie the strategic, ice-covered island firmly to the West and preserve its potentially large oil production for Atlantic consumers.
Greenland's foremost political leader Lars Lric Johnsen, has agreed to a formula to provide for joint exploitation of the offshore oil by Denmark and Greenland, according to authoritative sources here. Control of oil and other mineral resources like uranium has been the biggest obstacle to an agreement.
The Danes and representatives of the huge island's 46,000 Eskimos, meanwhile have worked out a form of home rule that will give Greenlanders a large measure of autonomy. Defense and foreign affairs, however, will remain under Copenhagen's control, ensuring Greenland's retention in the NATO defense system.
Several secondary issues remain to be resolved. But negotiators are confident that a final agreement will be reached this winter and that the Greenlanders will accept it.
Officials here are reluctant to draw attention to the important larger consequences of the home rule commission's handiwork. The agreement is expected to quell the faint stirrings of a movement toward an independent Greenland and make sure that the sub-Arctic is and remains part of Denmark, a staunch NATO member, indefinitely.
The island, offshore from Canada, would be in the path of Soviet planes and missiles headed toward the United States. Although satellites have reduced the value of U.S. bases in Greenland as warning stations, no NATO member would welcome a Greenland in neutral or unfriendly hands.
How much oil lies off Greenland's west coast is unknown, but early exploration suggests the self could yield several million barrels a day more than enough to supply all of Britain's needs. Two exploration rigs are at work in the waters this summer.
The question of who would control the oil and other minerals that may exist in substantial quantities almost wrecked the deal between the Danes and the Greenlanders. Two years ago, Greenland's provincial council shocked Copenhagen by asserting that the mineral resources belonged exclusively to Greenlanders.
A joint commission of Danish and Greenland or legislators, under Prof. Isi Foighel of Copenhagen University, has been wrestling with this and other issues ever since. The minerals question alone touched off 20 hours of intensive argument inside the commission, with the Danes insisting they must have some share in the resources.
The deadlock was broken, according to insiders, when Johansen, an Eskimo with a Danish name and leader of the island's leftists, came out in favor of a solution providing that Greenlanders have "fundamental rights" but not "the" fundamental rights to the minerals. Like the U.N. resolutions adopted for Israeli-occupied territories, this formula implies that unnamed parties - in this case, Danes - also have a claim.
The draft arrangement calls for exploitation of the oil and other minnerals in accordance with rules jointly adopted by a new Greenland assembly and the Danish parliament. Most important, administration of these rules will be left in Danish hands. The negotiators expect that the revenues will be divited about equally between Greenland and Denmark, with a slightly larger share to Greenland.
The end result is to give Copenhagen a big say in the development of the oil which could start flowing to Atlantic markets in the 1980s.
The long negotiations in Foighel's commission - reflect a combination of Danish social consciousness and hardheaded self interest.
For two centuries until 1953, Greenland had been a closed and isolated colony. Then, in response to nationalist movements around the globe. Denmark turned the place into a province of the mother country.
Danes suddenly discovered that the local population - now both Eskimos and Eskimo Danes - was starving, discase-ridden and bound to a Stone Age Hunting-and-fishing culture. In an excess of Danish good will, resources poured in. Modern Danish homes were built, civil servants ran elaborate welfare programs, businessmen set up shops. Today, Copenhagen's yearly subsidy comes to a staggering $2,300 dollars a head.
This made the Eskimos comfortable and helpless. Danish became the chief language, and children could no longer communicate with their parents.
Johanesen, the Eskimo leader, said, "Greenlanders don't feel they belong to their own country anymore. We are slowly losing our identity. We feel worthless in our own country."
To cure this state of welfare clientism, Foighel's joint commission was created.
It quickly agreed that a Greenlandic legislature should control the local schools, press, radio and television; lay down laws for the environment: fix taxes and determine how to spend the subsidy that would continue until the oil started flowing.
The commission also agreed that control of Greenland's defense and foreign relations would stay with Copenhagen, as would currency matters like the money supply and exchange rate.
But not until the agreement on mineral resources was a full accord in sight.