The PR War For The Falklands

Normally any vote that gains an outlandish 99.8% victory margin, let alone on a 92% turnout, would be roundly dismissed for flagrant vote-rigging. Nevertheless that was the free and fair outcome of the Falklands referendum, with only 3 lone Islanders objecting that they did not ‘wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom’. Of course, the poll was never intended to discover public opinion – the eventual outcome had been widely expected – but to make an unequivocal moral statement to the international community. Indeed, this was only the latest move in a public relations war with Argentina as both sides seek to shape favourable international opinion for their claim.

In order to understand why the poll was so important for the Islanders, it’s necessary to look at how this latest dispute is likely to play out. Britain and the Falklands are opposed to any negotiations over the Islands sovereignty. Argentina, knowing their presence only weakens its position, is unwilling to sit at a table with the Islanders themselves. Faced with deadlock, the Argentine strategy is twofold: firstly, popularising the cause on the international scene – particularly within the region – and secondly, to place pressure on the Islanders by inflicting increasing disruption on their economy and livelihoods.

Never willing to miss an opportunity to gain publicity, President Cristina Kirchner has in recent months appealed repeatedly to international bodies such as the UN, produced an Olympic advert staged on the Islands and placed full page adverts in British newspapers. Most significantly, Buenos Aires has sought to win support from across Latin America. Often this has been done by inciting anti-colonialist sentiment against Britain, for example scaremongering about the ‘militarisation’ of the South Atlantic. This approach has produced generally positive results. Although Argentina was unsuccessful at the 2012 Summit of the Americas it did obtain resolutions of support from MERCOSUR and the Union of South American Nations. Argentina needs international and regional backing for expanding its second approach – disruption. This has included preventing ships flying the Falklands flag from docking at MERCOSUR ports, or even allowing cruise ships visiting the Islands into Argentinian ones. It also means disrupting oil and gas exploration, restricting international flights and harassing Falkland-licensed fishing ships. Such methods are designed to place pressure on the Falkland Islands’ economy (based on tourism and fishing) in order to force negotiations. Of course, it is the newly discovered oil fields around the islands that are likely to become the true fault line of the dispute. They provide Argentina not only with a renewed interest in claiming its sovereignty but the economic benefits for the Falklands reduce any future likelihood of negotiations.

Yet despite Argentina’s highly visible campaign the cause may well have peaked. There is a great difference between seeking moral support for anti-colonialism and asking other emerging countries to make economic sacrifices. Although British-Argentinian trade is only around $1.5 billion annually, Britain is the fourth largest supplier of FDI in Latin America with particular interests in crucial countries such as Brazil, Chile and Colombia. Will these countries be willing to risk this much-needed investment for a dispute they have little stake in? Another crucial factor, easily overlooked, is that as British citizens each Falkland Islander is a member of the world’s largest trading bloc – the EU. Particularly telling was a damaging 2012 campaign for Argentinians to boycott British produce – which elicited a complaint from the European Commission at a time when the EU and MERCOSUR are in free-trade talks.

Given the powerful economic interests at play it can seem as if the referendum itself will be insignificant; applauded by supporters, ignored by opponents. Certainly the outcome was celebrated across the Islands and in Britain but denounced as ‘illegal’ and ‘irrelevant’ by Buenos Aires. Of greater note though is the reaction in the US. Even before the vote the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, was determined to remain neutral, claiming that the US ‘recognises de facto UK administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of the parties’ sovereignty claims’, an attitude studiously unchanged after the vote. Coming from the UK’s strongest ally, one upon whom it was heavily reliant in 1982 for military support, this is a clear blow – especially as the US calls for negotiations for a solution, i.e. Argentina’s position. Yet the expression of self-determination did find strong North American support from the Canadian foreign minister, who emphasised that ‘only the people of the Falklands can determine their future…the results were very clear’. Moreover, contrary to Argentinian requests, the referendum drew electoral observers from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and Paraguay. The official response across the continent may have been muted but the influential Brazilian newspaper Fola De Sao Paulo, under the headline of ‘Malvinas: British’ labelled the referendum a ‘compelling defeat’ for the Argentinian government.

In the end, the Falklands/Malvinas dispute is not going to be settled or abandoned anytime soon. Nationalist feelings run hot over the issue at both ends. As with 30 years ago, belligerent noises from Argentina and an unyielding British response can provide rare positive headlines for struggling governments. Only a year ago Kirchner nationalised YPF, the Spanish-owned oil company, claiming it was squandering national resources. It was a highly popular decision and it is easy to understand the appeal of similar approach with Las Malvinas. However, as long as the Argentine argument is based on a clumsy mix of historical and moral claims it is unlikely to gain further ground at either supranational institutions or regional summits. For much of the last century international law and norms have prioritised ‘the self-determination of peoples’ over unclear historical territorial wrangles. Kirchner may claim the Islanders are an ‘implanted population’ but her logic is tortuous. It is hard to accept the rights of Argentine settlers who lived on the islands for, at most, 13 years trump the 180 years and 9 generations of the current Islanders.

For a continent only just emerging from the colonial shadow there is certainly a superficial appeal to the Argentinian campaign. But Buenos Aires would do well to remember the moral case for anti-colonialism has always rested on the principle of self-determination, not opposing it. On that basis the referendum may not settle the dispute but it may well turn the PR battle once and for all.