Predictably, the inhabitants of the Falklands/Malvinas came out overwhelmingly in support of retaining their ties with London rather than Buenos Aires. After this latest episode in British-Argentine relations it is interesting to ponder whether British rhetoric has, counter-productively, potentially ceded ground to the Argentines.
It is often forgotten, or not mentioned that through much of the nineteenth century, British-Argentine relations were very good. Trade between the two countries was prosperous, and into the port-capital of Buenos Aires the game of association football was brought across the Atlantic.
But what of British foreign policy towards Argentina since the war in 1982? Relations were naturally strained. The British unsurprisingly objected to what they regarded as an attack on its territory, whereas the Argentines had cause to be aggrieved by British tactics such as the sinking of the warship El General Belgrano. Debate continues as to whether the ship was a threat to British personnel when it was sunk by torpedoes, and if not, whether the action constitutes a war crime. Four years later the actions of Diego Maradona in Mexico ’86 hardly endeared the Argentines to the English public.
Turning to the present day, as in 1982, when military dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri used the long-standing dispute as a front to divert attention away from domestic difficulties, Cristina Fernández finds herself in a comparable position. The economy is faltering, there is plenty of social unrest, and so once again it is politically expedient to focus on a topic that unifies all sections of Argentine society: the sovereignty of Las Malvinas.
Prime Minister Cameron’s position has been clear from the outset. He repeats ad nauseam that there is nothing to discuss. Such is his insistence that one wonders whether the UK has effective policy measures in mind should they be required.
For Cameron, so long as the islanders themselves want to be part of the United Kingdom, they can count on support from London. However, by underscoring this policy so relentlessly, the UK is taking a calculated risk. On the one hand it enables the UK to avoid being drawn into a thoroughly convoluted argument on sovereignty, and allows it to effectively negate a UN resolution from 1982 that called for bilateral negotiations on the islands’ status.
Laying out its position so clearly has been advantageous in the short term. However, for the Argentines, such referenda are meaningless. The issue for them is not about what the islanders want, but who is the rightful sovereign. The Argentines have been dangled half a carrot by London. If, and it is an enormous if, they can slowly convince the islanders that they would be better off as Argentine than British, Buenos Aires would gain huge power in the dispute.
Whilst this is not a very likely possibility, Cameron’s rhetoric has left the door ajar to Argentina. His refusal to be caught up in the intricacies of the dispute, and instead offer a rhetoric of self-determination may suggest to the international community that the UK is on shaky ground. Furthermore, it leaves the future sovereignty of the islands outside of the UK’s direct control.
If self-determination is the arbiter of the dispute Argentina would do well to concentrate on its internal issues (although for them Las Malvinas is domestic politics) and slowly try and woo the islanders. Belligerence has not worked: a well-meaning set of proposals stands a greater chance. The result of the referendum was damning for Buenos Aires. But if they can build trust, a section of the islanders might just wonder what Britain really does for them that is not linked inextricably to control of the islands and the surrounding marine zones.
If the Argentine government can consolidate itself nationally, given its geographic proximity, it could offer economic and educational opportunities that the islanders cannot attain elsewhere. In such an eventually, Argentina would also be on stronger grounds with the international community to negotiate with Britain or secure a favourable decision from the International Court of Justice.
It became a cliché that the Iraq wars were about oil. Britain should be careful not to give cynics more reason to suggest that its real motivations behind its tenacious defence of the Falklands/Malvinas are access to the Pacific, fisheries, and proximity to the Antarctic. Above all this would re-ignite impression of the British as neo-colonial aspirants and grant Argentina, whose desires are also nationalist and strategic, a stronger standing in the dispute within the international community.
Cameron has side-stepped the issue of historical sovereignty and associated rights. Whilst this will probably prove to be effective politics, the door has been left ajar for Argentina to slowly build a support base from which to mount sovereignty challenges anew and in the future.