Brexit washes up on the Falklands

The Falkland/Malvinas islands. Photo: Yuriy Rzhemovskiy/Unsplash

The United Kingdom’s growing isolation as it exits the European Union offers Argentina a chance to increase pressure for talks on the future of the Malvinas or Falkland islands, a former ambassador has said.

Alicia Castro, who was Argentina’s ambassador to the UK from 2012 and 2016, said that she had become aware of a growing feeling among ordinary people in Britain for a dialogue with Buenos Aires about the fate of the disputed islands.

Castro was speaking after a seminar at the Latin America 2017 conference in London in which she discussed the impact upon sovereignty of growing pressure for a new round of free trade agreements in the region.

“Everyone who is for democracy should promote a dialogue between the United Kingdom and Argentina on the Malvinas question,” Castro told the Latin American Review of Books.

“The government of the United Kingdom has been isolated in despising the opportunities for negotiation that have been supported by the international community,” she said.

“Brexit would give an opportunity for Argentina to push that dialogue, because now the UK will be more isolated than ever.”

In 1982 the UK and Argentina fought a small war over the islands in the South Atlantic 300 miles from the South American coast that have a population of fewer than 3,000 people.

Argentina claims the territory which it says the UK occupied illegally in 1833, but a key feature of the dispute in 1982 was the backing Britain was able to muster from its European neighbours.

Although that support eventually crumbled, it was an important factor in the UK’s diplomatic offensive following the Argentine invasion. Since then, the islands have received development funding from Brussels as a dependent territory of a member state.

The EU has remained tight-lipped about the attitude it will take towards Britain’s role in the Falklands following Brexit, but the attitude Brussels has taken to both Gibraltar and Northern Ireland, in which it has granted Spain and Ireland, respectively, effective vetos over progress in future trade talks with the UK, indicates a clear departure from its past position.

Although relations between the UK and Argentina following the Malvinas conflict eventually improved, in 2009 the then British prime minister Gordon Brown told Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner that there would be no further talks on sovereignty.

More recently still, Britain has been bolstering its defences around the island in response to what London regarded as a confrontational attiude under Fernández. It has engaged in something of an arms race with the Argentine government, recently announcing that it had spent £78m on a new missile defence shield after Argentina had agreed to buy new fighter jets from France. In 2015 the UK unveiled a £280m defence upgrade for the islands.

There is little doubt that the economy of the Falkland islands will be hit by the loss of unrestricted access to EU markets following Brexit. About 70% of the islands’ GDP is accounted for by exports to Europe.

Fernández’s successor, the rightwing president Maurico Macri, has adopted what observers call a more conciliatory tone in relations with London, but what critics say is a policy of silent capitulation.

The UK flatly insists that it will not talk about sovereignty, which explains why in March this year a frustrated Macri broke his silence about the islands and lodged a formal protest with Brazil for hosting British military aircraft flying to and from them.

Castro told the Latin American Review of Books: “The government of Macri is not defending our sovereignty in any aspect, not even in the Malvinas sovereignty question.

“So I think it will always be a matter of ordinary people raising consciousness about this issue and I witnessed that when I was ambassador to the UK.

“There is an increasing number of people in Britain who are pro-dialogue, particularly trade unions and all the people who don’t want to see their taxes invested in the growing defence budget in remote islands where Argentina doesn’t pose any threat to the UK or the inhabitants of the islands.”

Given the lack of progress on this issue in Buenos Aires, there have been calls for Argentina to review its legal, diplomatic, economic and defensive positions regarding the Malvinas after Brexit in a way that recognises the UK’s new isolation.