Chronicle of a referendum foretold: What next for the Malvinas/Falklands?

The latest referendum shows that posturing alone won’t end the dispute between Argentina and the British.

In a recent referendum, Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly voted to remain under British sovereignty, yet a poll last year showed that only 29 percent "identified" as British [EPA]

Tuesday’s announcement of the result of the Falkland/Malvinas referendum on whether the South Atlantic islands should remain a British overseas territory come as no surprise, neither in Britain, Argentina, nor on the Islands themselves. Indeed, perhaps the biggest shock of all was the news that three inhabitants actually voted against. As bewildered Kelpers speculate on where the voices of dissent came from, in the aftermath of the referendum, we consider what has really changed and offer insights into what will happen next. In particular, we argue that it is in both the British and Argentine self-interest to change their stances in order to resolve the issue.

The elephant in the room

Before considering the significance of its outcome, it is worth mentioning that the re-emergence and heightening of the territorial dispute is often rather disingenuously attributed to the respective political leaders in power at the time (be it Thatcher and the military junta led by General Galtieri in 1982 or Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and David Cameron in 2012), who have repeatedly pulled the issue out of the hat in order to distract an easily-led populace from the beleaguered economy and low popularity at home. This certainly hasn’t been helped by the British press’ widely circulated depiction of the Argentine President as a feisty, populist, shoe-loving firebrand, which suggests an irrational and belligerent stance towards the Islands.

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Although the issue undoubtedly serves as convenient political football and lends itself to political points scoring, it is worth noting that Argentine claims to the “Malvinas” have never been far from the public arena (albeit somewhat more muted at times), both before and since the conflict. Indeed, intermittent secret discussions took place over sovereignty between the Argentine and British governments during the 1950s right up until the 1982 war, with reports that Juan Peron offered to purchase the islands [SP] from Britain in the 1950s and that the dictator Ongania considered retaking them [SP] in 1966. Meanwhile, two-time President Carlos Menem – the first Argentine head of state to visit Britain since the 1982 conflict – may have outwardly promoted more cordial and economic relations between the two nations, but one cannot forget his 1994 amendment to the Argentine Constitution, which requires its government to peacefully “seek to retrieve full sovereignty over the contended territories and maritime spaces”. Although the clause precluded any possibility of violent conflict, it sought to reassert and legally embed a claim that would not simply dissipate with military defeat. Moreover, although relations have become increasingly hostile since the 30th anniversary of the conflict last year, a resolution – one that might provide closure to the issue – remains elusive.

A pointless referendum?

With all this in mind, and given the apparent stalemate, where does that leave things in the wake of the referendum? Arguably the results do not tell us anything that we did not already know. However, what it has revealed is the need for negotiation and the fact that self-determination is not the only issue at stake here. However, the referendum has served political interests for all parties involved; For the British it has “proved” that the Falklanders are British” and for the Argentines (who refuse to recognise the vote) that they are settlers and illegitimate heirs to the territory. The problem is that the referendum is not a process into which all parties have entered equally, nor does it reveal whether the Islanders desire to keep the status quo as a precursor to full autonomy or seek independence from Britain. To add to the ambiguity, recent opinion polls suggest that only a third of the islanders identify as British. Had a different question been asked, we might well have had a very different outcome. In this sense, the referendum feels like a missed opportunity to engage in a profound and diverse debate about the issue. Yet in spite of the seemingly polarised stances of their respective governments, the reality is that there is much more common ground to build from than meets the eye. If only they would listen.

For a start, whilst Britain highlights the self-determination of the Falklanders as the defining issue and focuses on their “British” identity and way of life, Argentina has already promised to respect these entirely. Instead, their concern is one of territorial integrity and sovereignty over the land (and surrounding sea). This makes it even more absurd that the two parties cannot sit round the negotiating table and talk about mutual cooperation.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Given these shared visions yet different perspectives, let us consider what may happen next both in Britain and Argentina. In the immediate future it is reported that the issue will be discussed in Argentina’s Congress and that they will in all probability formally reject the referendum result. It is then likely that the Argentine government will seek to take the case to the UN Decolonisation Committee and potentially one day force a UN General Assembly vote on the issue. But this may merely serve as nothing more than brinkmanship. It is important to recognise that such is the potency of the Malvinas issue and its centrality in Argentina’s national identity construction that its government and entire political class would actually benefit from having the sovereignty question left perpetually unresolved. If the Falkands were ever “returned” to Argentina – whilst it would no doubt bring enormous short-term popularity for the government in power at the time – it is difficult to imagine what alternative trump card any future administration could pull out of its back pocket as a vote winner when times got tough again. Having said that, evidence suggests that Argentines are becoming increasingly cynical about their claim to the Malvinas, especially among young people, so the government may yet come under increasing domestic pressure to reach a negotiated compromise agreement in the future.

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Meanwhile, Argentina needs to seriously reappraise its hostile approach to the Islanders because its reference to them as an “implanted” population, plus their refusal to negotiate with them face-to-face is not gaining them any friends in the South Atlantic. If the Argentine government is, as it has repeatedly stated “committed to respecting the identity and way of life of the inhabitants of the Malvinas, as we do with the 250,000 British descendants living in mainland Argentina” in spite of the fact that the “territory belongs to Argentina”, then they need to work on building fraternal relations with the Islanders themselves, or at the very least adopt a less bellicose discourse towards them. It is naive of any government to think that they can lay claim to an inhabited territory without considering their relations with its existing residents. This argument has been put forward by a number of Argentine scholars and intellectuals, such as Osvaldo Bayer [SP] who argued that Argentina needs to offer grants for university study in Argentina and organise cultural events to encourage trust-building exchanges between the Islanders and Argentine citizens. Small gestures like these are surely necessary before any meaningful negotiations can take place. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the Falklanders, the British, for now, hold all the cards. 

Back in the UK, it is unlikely that the British government’s position will change substantially. The referendum result will serve to reinforce its view that the Falklanders have now decided their own fate once and for all. Meanwhile, respecting their wishes certainly serves as a convenient smokescreen to offer the world in order to disguise its rabid enthusiasm for exploiting the hydrocarbons that lie under the seabed since the recent discovery of oil deposits. However, like Argentina’s stance, Britain’s position is looking increasingly unsustainable in the face of mounting global opposition. Not even the United States, its closest global ally, is willing to support Britain’s claim.

Like the Argentines, the British also need to realise that negotiation is crucial and that the issue will not dissipate, regardless of which president is in power in their Southern relation. The government should reflect on the absurdity of clinging on to such a colonial outpost in the 21st century and the reality that it merely serves to buttress a false sense of national pride, years after the sun set on the empire. Britain must move forward, in particular if it wants to continue fostering links with the rapidly expanding Latin American economies as William Hague and David Cameron have declared on recent visits to Latin America. Unlike the 1980s, there is now significant Latin American unity and some form of coherent consensus over the Malvinas question as well as a revival of anti-imperialist discourse that makes up part of the Pink-Tide (the election of leftist governments throughout the region). For example, in 2011, the members of Mercosur, the organisation for South American regional cooperation, agreed to close their ports to ships flying the Falkland/Malvinas flag. Ironically, Britain’s stubborn refusal to adopt a more flexible approach may be entirely self-defeating both in terms of the national self-interest and the Islands’ economy given that being able to exploit the islands’ hydrocarbon deposits on a significant scale would depend on access to the Argentinean mainland.

Finally, given the escalation in tensions and rhetoric recently, what are the prospects for a re-run of the 1982 conflict? As noted by Hal Klepak at a recent symposium on the issue, this scenario seems somewhat unlikely. Britain’s various ill-fated military excursions in the Middle East recently mean that overseas wars are increasingly difficult to justify to a sceptical public. Furthermore, the British Defence budget has been slashed, making another war impossible to afford and crucially, its only aircraft carrier in the South Atlantic has been removed, so an aerial battle (key to the victory in 1982) appears unlikely. On the Argentinean side, army numbers has been drastically reduced since the 1980s, its Defence budget has also been exhausted in army pensions and it is untrained to fight wars against an external enemy. The referendum result itself may not have revealed any hidden or unknown truths, but it has shown that dialogue – lacking up until now – is sorely needed because positions on both sides are increasingly untenable. Time will tell whether this window for engagement becomes a missed opportunity for British-Argentine relations to peacefully resolve the issue once and for all.

Cara Levey (University College Cork, Ireland) and Daniel Ozarow (Middlesex University Business School) are lecturers in Argentine studies and Coordinators of the Argentina Research Network in the United Kingdom.