The people of Gibraltar had one in 1967 and again in 2002, and now the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) has announced this month that a referendum will be held in early 2013.
Few people outside the FIG were privy to the decision, which would have been taken after consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. But it would not be difficult to imagine why the UK government would have supported such a move. Ever since Argentine presidents Nestor and now Christina Kirchner assumed political office, they have made it their business to push harder on the sovereignty question. Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands Conflict, UK-Argentine relations are arguably in their worst state since 1982.
The Argentine government has used three strategies to pursue their claim to the Falklands/Malvinas: (i) they seek to publicly embarrass the UK government at every opportunity, (ii) they press for Latin American and even North American political support at every international summit, and (iii) they recruit and/or encourage supporters including pop stars and acclaimed actors to press their case at a more popular level, while releasing advertisements to make clear their claims for domestic and international audiences.
Each of these strategies is undertaken with an assertive, even aggressive, determination. Even so, the Argentine government has no incentive to pursue a militarised solution to the dispute. There is neither the popular desire nor military capacity within Argentina to undertake a military invasion such as the one that occurred in 1982.
What they do have is geography in their favour. Argentina is the nearest neighbour to the Islands and this proximity has become critical to the diplomatic pursuit—and strategic assertion—of Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands. Speaking at the UN’s Decolonisation Committee last week, the Argentine President, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, reasserted a long-posited argument that ‘the Malvinas’ (as Argentina refers to the Islands) form an integral part of the South American continental shelf. “How can it be claimed”, she asked, “that, 14,000 kilometres [8,700 miles] away, that it can be part of the British territory?”. By asserting the rationality of Argentina’s claim (and therefore the ‘irrationality’ of British sovereignty over the Islands) on the basis of geographical proximity and geological contiguity, Kirchner rehearses arguments which were already very familiar prior to 1982. They, nonetheless, continue to provoke considerable excitement and exasperation on either side of the debate, not least because of their appeal to a kind of tabloid geographical, or geopolitical, ‘logic’. [Dr. Alasdair Pinkerton was asked about the issue of geographical rationality in an interview with Australia’s ABC News this week. Scroll down for video].
Issues of geographical proximity and continuity are more than just diplomatic gambits. They are integral to Argentina’s regional strategies and, therefore, the future security of the Falkland Islands. Chilean aircraft need to traverse Argentine airspace in order to sustain the vital air link with the Falklands. Argentine vessels operating off the coast of South America can, and do, harass shipping bound for the Falkland Islands. The Argentine government can show perennial disinterest in common fisheries management because they have little to no interest in supporting the main industry supporting the Falklands economy. And, through their actions and works, the Argentine government attempt to undermine the confidence of international investors in the Falklands.
Embarrassing Britain and strangling the Falklands economy is the strategy of choice. The 2013 referendum is intended to act as a powerful statement of intent. Just as the people of Gibraltar rejected Franco’s bullying in 1967 and joint sovereignty proposals in 2002, the 3000 strong community in the South Atlantic is widely expected by a 99% majority to favour continued links with the UK as an overseas territory. Will Argentina listen to such a result? No. Nor is the referendum intended to persuade Argentina. Rather, the Falkland Islands Government hope that a clear, resolute, and democratic statement of Falkland Islands opinion will persuade South American neighbours such as Brazil and Chile (and the wider international community) that future support for Argentina’s “bullying” is no longer acceptable.
Remembering the past is one thing, living in it is another.
AP & KD
Dr. Alasdair Pinkerton on ABC News’s ‘The World’ programme (Friday 15th June 2012)