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Brexit And The Falklands: Isolated UK Is Opportunity For Argentina

Brexit could isolate Britain in its dispute with Argentina over the Falklands, though leaders in Buenos Aires need to think and speak clearly, or risk keep the status quo.

A man passes by a store in the Falklands
A man passes by a store in the Falklands
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — In 2014, I wrote about the Falkland Islands urging Argentina to adopt a strategy in its longstanding territorial dispute with Britain on four pillars: legality, diplomacy, currency and defense. I sensed then that Argentina had no long-term, comprehensive Falklands policy since the restoration of its democracy in 1983. Little has changed since except one big thing: Brexit.

In the past 35 years and depending on the government in power, we have alternately tried raising and lowering the cost for Britain of keeping the islands, emphasizing bilateral or multilateral aspects of the issue of sovereignty, relying on regional neighbors or the great powers to advance our claim, raising or lowering our tone and profile, or reconsidering or dismissing the value of the local residents of the island. Such vicissitudes have proven (and will continue to prove) fruitless for Argentina.

Now, Argentina must review its legal, diplomatic, economic and defensive position regarding the Falklands after Brexit. First, in legal terms, changes have come in international law in recent years around self-determination, territorial integrity and sovereignty show that we may be living through a singular moment in modern history right now. The United States, China, Russia and the "residual" European Union are bolstering the sovereignty concept for geopolitical, economic and juridical reasons, which Argentina could exploit on the subject of the Falklands.

Our own decline has prevented us from exploiting this opportunity.

Secondly, on the diplomatic front, leaving the European Union will weaken the UK's standing and affect its relations with the islands. The Falkland Islands had 198 million euros of exports to the EU in 2016, equivalent to 70% of its GDP. The EU committed itself through the European Development Fund, to provide the islands with six million euros in aid in the period 2014-20. If our country had a clear idea that it must negotiate with Britain but can still talk to the islanders, it could design a set of initiatives to favor their economy after Brexit.

But Argentina must also "surround" the UK by strengthening its links with Latin America, where London has been enjoying a rather successful offensive in the last two years, and by taking into account China's apparent interest in the South Atlantic.

Thirdly, there is the essential "currency" of economic resources. Britain is not as powerful today as it was, and Brexit will likely render it even weaker. Yet our own decline has prevented us from exploiting this opportunity. As historical cases show, international negotiating power increases as domestic conditions strengthen.

One disadvantage of simply waiting 16 months for the "shower of investments' promised by the government of President Mauricio Macri, is that the country stopped thinking about a development model that would bring it prosperity and boost the tangible attributes of power that are of use in foreign policy. The window of opportunity provided by a momentary weakening of British power is small and should not be wasted, especially when the Falklands' northern basin may have important oil reserves.

The fourth significant issue is defense. Evidently, whatever the circumstances, Britain will seek to boost its naval defenses around the Falklands. Its navy has just launched a new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, with the military lessons of the 1982 Argentine invasion of the islands in mind. In 2015, discerning a confrontational attitude in the government of the last president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, London strengthened the islands' defenses, to which it is to allocate 180 million pounds ($224 million) over 10 years. Recently and in spite of friendly gestures by the Macri government, the UK has approved spending 153 million pounds ($191 million) on a defense system for the Falklands. And what is our country's response?

Discussing the Falklands has become hard in Argentina. The Left fears it may fuel militarism. The conservatives want to put the armed forces to work fighting drug trafficking. Few people are interested in reviewing the links between foreign policy and defense, while the state's most recent purchases of military hardware have been cautious, and defensive.

But whatever course it takes, the government in Buenos Aires must urgently formulate a new, post-Brexit policy on the Falklands.

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