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What lessons can the UK learn from Greenland leaving the EU?

In the second in a series of reports looking at alternative models to Britain's trading with Europe, Europe Editor James Mates heads to Greenland.

A couple of years ago I made a (disastrous) appearance on Christmas Celebrity University Challenge. Many of the early questions were Christmas-related, but then came one that fell right into my lap: ‘in 1985, which became the first country ever to leave the European Union?’

I knew that. Of course I did. I was supposed to be Europe Editor of ITV News. I pushed vigorously on the buzzer, only to the see that - to my horror - a little white panel saying ‘LITTLE’ was already alight.

“Greenland” said Alan Little of the BBC and Edinburgh University. “Yes, well done” said Jeremy Paxman. For once he looked genuinely impressed. Talk about missing a chance at glory.

Read more from James Mates: Can Canada provide the answer to Britain's trade future?

1973 to 1985, to be precise. Greenland, not even part of Europe but ruled by Denmark, had joined the EU at the same time as the UK, but voted a decade later to get out.

The problem was fishing. Greenland’s trawlermen were already under pressure from foreign boats using their rights under the Common Fisheries Policy, and the giant fleets of Spain and Portugal were about to join in the free-for-all, so 53% of Greenlanders voted that enough was enough. Time to get out.

So what lessons are there for the UK, currently debating whether to double the number of EU refuseniks?

To be honest, not that many. Greenland is a country of 56,000 people with an economy dominated (90%) by a single industry, fishing.

Britain is neither of those things.

But it is interesting nevertheless, that even for them, unpicking EU membership was a long and laborious process. It took three years or so, even when there was just one industry involved, and one product whose access to the European market had to be negotiated.

They succeeded, and relations are good. Greenland is still ruled by the Danish crown, so its people remain EU citizens.

The EU still provides substantial funds in return for access to some of Greenland’s fishing grounds and to restructure its fishing fleet.

The harbour in the capital Nuuk is now home to some very modern trawlers that can make their owners spectacular sums when the prawn catch is good and the Greenland halibut, that we call Turbot, are plentiful.

So much so, in fact, that some now complain that the lack of EU membership is hurting their ability to get much needed investment to develop and expand.

The other major downside is that leaving the control of Brussels did not free them from what the ‘Leave’ campaign call the dead-hand of Brussels regulation. Far from it.

They are no longer at the table when fisheries are discussed, but if they are to sell into the single-market - which they must - then every rule applies to them as much as it does to us.

And not just the fishermen. We met an ice-cream maker in Nuuk who sells his (delicious) product to Denmark and beyond, but must battle constantly to apply each and every production and hygiene rule, however onerous. The idea that breaking free from Brussels wins you any sort of freedom from their rules is, he tells us, ludicrous.

There is no real move in Greenland to return to the EU. Some would find life easier back in the fold, but the majority seem happy with their status as outsiders who can still operate as if they were insiders.

The only real debate in Nuuk at the moment is whether to break free from Denmark itself, but they know in their heart of hearts that the loss of financial support would be economic suicide.

Greenlanders have proved that it is possible to leave. Their experience shows post-divorce relations can be cordial enough, though it has to be noted that they are small enough for Brussels to have been magnanimous.

But theirs is also a lesson in the limits of freedom, post EU. You can break-away, but if you still want to buy and sell and travel, your new found ‘independence’ can still seem pretty restrictive.