On March 10 and 11, residents of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands will go to the polls to vote on whether or not they wish to remain under British rule. Roughly 2,500 Falklanders will finally get to voice their desire to remain as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
The referendum occurs at a time when relations between the United Kingdom and Argentina have reached a low-point. After the political fallout from the 1982 Falklands War, bilateral relations between London and Buenos Aires improved during the late 1990s, when a series of cooperation agreements were signed on issues such as fishing and the search for hydrocarbons.
Unfortunately, the present-day Argentine administration, led by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has fervently sought control of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands ever since reportsconfirmed the presence of massive oil reserves underneath the Falklands surface. It is expected that there will be even more unnecessarily provocative statements originating from Buenos Aires as the referendum approaches, such as those made by Argentine Minister Hector Timerman during a recent trip to London.
Recent tensions over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands
Over the past couple of years the world has seen an increase in tensions between London and Buenos Aires. Events such as the30-year anniversary of the Falklands Warin April 2012 and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, prompted nationalistic statements, ceremonies and even a controversial TV commercial by the Argentine government over the islands. As a way to counter Argentina’s initiatives, the British government plans to use the results of the referendum to show the international community that the self-determination of the islanders is being respected.
The Argentine government argues that the referendum is invalid as the islanders are “colonizers” and are not an indigenous population of the islands. President Kirchner has gone as far as declaring before the United Nations’ decolonization committee that the British government is simultaneously promoting a 21st century policy of colonization and militarizing the South Atlantic. Furthermore, in early January, Kirchner wrote a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, requesting that his country “abide by the resolutions of the United Nations,”–referring to UN declarations to end colonialism, which Buenos Aires argues London is doing on the Falkland/Malvinas islands. More recently, Argentine Foreign Affairs Minister Timerman refused to include the representatives of the Falkland Islands government in his meeting with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague during his visit to London. Argentina’s goal seems to be to rally its supporters by portraying London as some kind of aggressive, imperial power.
To be fair, London has also carried out some initiatives which can be regarded as undiplomatic. For example, in 2012, theRoyal navy deployed the destroyer HMS Dauntless, one of its most modern warships, to the Falklands. The United Kingdom argued that this was a standard rotation of personnel and military material to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Nevertheless, deploying the Dauntless was considered an aggressive move by the Argentine government, whose own navy is in dire shape, as exemplified by the recent incidents involving vessels like the ARA Libertad frigate and the ARA Espora corvette.
Even some British research centers have controversially extreme statements. For example, the United Kingdom National Defence Association, a non-governmental organization made up of retired British military officers, published a report in 2011 in which it called for London to increase its defense budget. In the report, the authors claimed that Argentina could potentially carry out a new military operation to retake the Falkland/Malvinas Islands if the British military suffers additional budget cuts.
Cooperation is not unheard of
The aforementioned examples may give the reader the impression that the historical relationship between the United Kingdom and Argentina has always been one of tension. This is not the case. In fact, British business interests have been involved in Argentina for centuries. In the 19th century, they helped build railroads in the South American nation. In addition, there has been cooperation between London, Buenos Aires and the regional government of the Falklands as recently as the mid/late 1990s.
At the time, a number of cooperation agreements were signed, including the search for hydrocarbons as well as promising agreements over oil and fishing. Unfortunately, some of these agreements have since been cancelled as a result of the Kirchner administration coming to power. As an example, in 2007, Buenos Aires retreated from a 1995 deal over oil and gas exploration.
While we all wish for tensions not to be blown out of proportion, the Kirchner government’s continuous belligerent and nationalistic statements make it hard for any diplomatic reproach with London and the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, as this might erode whatever little popular support Kirchner has asArgentina enters yet another cycle of economic crisis.
Likewise, Prime Minister Cameron is in an uncomfortable position himself and may not want to appear weak before the British electorate, especially as he has some tough years ahead. Issues that he will have to deal with include the unpopular restructuring of the British military, a British referendum over membership in the European Union, and Scotland’s 2014 referendum regarding its future in the UK. With that said, the Argentine government’s successive aggressive statements and postures have made it particularly difficult to achieve some type of constructive dialogue with the UK.
The recent incident in which Timerman refused to meet with Falkland Islands officials stands out as a poor decision made by the highest ranking diplomat of the Argentine government . Also unhelpful were Timerman’s declarations in London that he foresaw Argentine control of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in 20 years.
As is often the case in international affairs, the actions and decisions by governments regarding a particular issue are affected by other unrelated issues. In the case of the British/Argentine dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, debates and claims over them will continue, but this does not mean that cooperation between London, Buenos Aires and Stanley (the capital of the islands) cannot occur at the same time. It already happened in the late 1990s, and it could and should happen again.