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Britain Won't Be The First To Leave A United Europe. Guess Who Was?

Jun 28, 2016
Originally published on June 28, 2016 7:57 pm

I was in Luxembourg recently, in advance of the British referendum on leaving the European Union, and received a tour, a history lesson and practically a sermon on the merits of the European Union by Heinz-Hermann Elting.

Elting is a German-born resident of Luxembourg City. He's retired now and rides his bicycle around the city when he isn't caring for his sheep — that's singular "sheep." He used to work for the European Parliament, a movable legislative feast that spends a part of the year in Luxembourg.

His fervor for European integration is passionate and his knowledge of its institutions is encyclopedic. So when I observed that the United Kingdom would be the first country to leave the European Union, he corrected me.

"Great Britain is not the first case," he said.

So who was?

Greenland.

Here's the story. Greenlanders didn't want to join the European Economic Community, as the EU's forerunner was called.

But Greenland was part of Denmark, and the Danes outvoted them in 1973 and joined the EEC. Six years later, Greenland won autonomy from Copenhagen.

Greenland then held its own referendum on European membership in 1982. More than 12,000 Greenlanders voted to leave, versus just over 11,000 who voted to remain.

So Greenland began exiting the EEC, though the process wasn't instantaneous.

"I remember that we did in the Legal Affairs Committee a report on the exit conditions of Greenland," Elting recalled.

How long did it take?

"At least two years," he said.

Greenland officially divorced from the EEC in 1985.

There are actually a couple of other cases, including French Algeria. The Mediterranean coast of Algeria was considered an integral part of France and became part of the EEC along with France in 1957. However, after Algeria received independence from France in 1962, it left the EEC.

Greenland, with a current population of around 56,000, does stand out by leaving the European grouping while remaining part of a country — Denmark — that has stayed in.

Greenland's leaders have said consistently that they are satisfied with the decision to leave.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, then-Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist said, "We have regular meetings with the [European] Parliament, and the European Union is one of our international partners — an important partner, and important for trade."

"But," he added, "at the moment, there's no serious consideration for rejoining the European Union."

To be fair to all those who say Britain would be the first country to leave the EU, that is technically true.

Greenland was not, and is not, fully independent. And the European Economic Community did not become the European Union until 1993.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last month when I was in Luxembourg City, anticipating the British referendum on leaving the European Union, I was given a tour, a history lesson and practically a sermon on the merits of the EU by Heinz Elting.

HEINZ-HERMANN ELTING: If people are intelligent, they should maintain and improve the structures of the European Union and the policies, too (laughter).

SIEGEL: Mr. Elting is a German-born resident of the Luxembourgish capital. He's a 76-year-old retiree who rides his bicycle around the city when he isn't caring for his sheep. That's singular, by the way. He owns one sheep. He used to work as a committee staffer for the European Parliament. The parliament is a movable legislative feast that spends a part of the year in Luxembourg. And when I observed that the United Kingdom would be the first country to leave the European Union if they voted that way, Heinz Elting was quick to correct me.

ELTING: Great Britain is not the first case of a country leaving the European Union. Greenland was first.

SIEGEL: Greenland?

ELTING: The Danish ice continent.

SIEGEL: That's right, Greenland. In case you weren't tracking problems in 1970s European integration or in case you have forgotten, here's the story. Greenland became part of the European Economic Community, as the EU used to be called, in 1973. Greenlanders didn't want to. But Greenland was part of Denmark, and the Danes outvoted them. A few years later, Greenland won autonomy from Copenhagen and held its own referendum. It was a little smaller than last week's Brexit in which more than 30 million people voted. In Greenland, more than 12,000 Greenlanders voted to leave, and just over 11,000 voted to remain. Elting worked on the European parliamentary committee that had to implement that decision.

ELTING: I remember that we did in the Legal Affairs Committee and at the European Parliament a report on the exit conditions of Greenland.

SIEGEL: Well, how long did it take to negotiate all of the provisions of Greenland leaving the European...

ELTING: Well, I think it took at least two years.

SIEGEL: Two years. This doesn't augur well for the speed of the coming British separation. There actually are a couple of other cases, but Greenland stands out by leaving the EU while remaining part of a country, Denmark, that stayed in. Now, to be fair to all those people who've said that Britain would be the first country to leave the EU, that is true. The treaties that turned the European Economic Communities into the European Union had not yet been adopted when Greenland pulled out. So procedurally, what may now happen with the U.K. is something novel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.