UK or Argentina? As the implications of Brexit continue to unfold, the tiny island chain known as the Falklands has once again found itself in the limelight with questions surrounding the territory’s sovereignty continuing to emerge. Currently under UK control, ultimately the economic woes of the Falklands coupled with the ‘X-Factor’ that is Susan Malcorra’s candidacy for Secretary-General of the United Nations could surprisingly shift the power dynamic back in Argentina’s favor.
Two votes, one in the near future and one in the recent past, may ultimately dictate what happens to the sovereignty of the area known as the Falkland Islands. As a relatively small and remote group of islands situated in the South Atlantic Ocean, one might be surprised to find that the island chain is in the middle of two of this year’s most pressing international geopolitical events: the United Kingdom’s referendum on EU membership and the selection of the successor to current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Throughout history, both Argentina and the United Kingdom have laid claim the Falkland Islands, an archipelago just off the southeast coast of Argentina. With a complex history of European colonization, a few localized conflicts, and an all-out war in 1982, both sides have continued to hold onto their respective positions backed by seemingly cogent arguments.
On one hand, you have the Argentinians, whose main arguments center on the Island’s proximity to its mainland, the international law concept of Uti possidetis juris (which suggests the Falklands sovereignty was transferred to Argentina from Spain upon independence), and the contention that the British took the islands by force in 1833.
By claiming that the British took the island by force, Argentina is seeking to nullify any claims of self-determination, a term familiar amongst international disputes whereby the inhabitants of the territory (in this case, the Falklands) are designated ‘nationals’ and have the right to freely choose their own sovereignty. This point is particularly salient as a referendum was held in the Falklands in 2013 and showed an overwhelming majority supported remaining a British territory, with over 99% in favor with over 91% voter turnout.
On the other hand, you have the British, whose main arguments center on this right to self-determination and the fact that, except for a brief period in 1982 (The Falklands War), the islands have been peacefully ruled by the UK since 1833.
“Taking back control”?
Following the UK referendum and the ‘Leave’ campaign emerging victorious, a level of uncertainty began to surround just about everything to do with the United Kingdom including their sovereignty claims abroad. On balance, with both an increased level of independence in managing foreign affairs and an enhanced military flexibility that an EU membership may have otherwise imposed upon, it seems only likely that the UK will more assertively and effectively handle overseas territorial claims.
However, without EU membership, multilateral support for some of the United Kingdom’s territorial claims could falter. Yes, intergovernmental alliances such as NATO will go a long way to coalesce European Nations with regard to the United Kingdom’s broader foreign policy goals, but there is still room for more narrowly-focused territorial disputes as the implications of ‘Brexit’ continue to take shape.
Aside from the Falklands, we have seen other territorial disputes reemerge, most notably, Spain’s interest in the sovereignty of Gibraltar, a British territory at the southern tip of Spain that voted to overwhelmingly stay in the EU. And although these sovereignty disagreements may be nothing more than opportunistic irredentism, they could illustrate a perceived vulnerability by the international community of a more isolated United Kingdom following Brexit.
Terms of trade
Aside from the impact of a changing European geopolitical landscape, other more localized issues will also impact the UK’s control over the Falklands. With the vote to leave the EU, comes the requisite action by the UK of renegotiating trade deals with the European Union. Any overseas UK territory that trade with the EU single market will be strongly lobbying that trade terms remain at least in line with the status quo.
Given the uncertainty around these upcoming terms, the Falklands, which export a vast majority of their goods to the European single market, may be forced to establish a closer relationship with Argentina and the rest of South America in order to remain economically self-sufficient. Looking to land exports once destined for the EU in South America, the Falklands may shift to having a more amicable tone as well as a more amenable disposition toward Argentina in a quid pro quo like fashion.
Conventional factors aside, what might amount to the most important event for the future of the Falklands could actually be the process to replace UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon. As a current Argentinian politician, former UN insider, and reported favorite of the United States, Susan Malcorra has emerged as a leading contender for the top spot at the UN.
In the eyes of Argentinians, her auspicious candidacy could augment the pressures currently being felt by the Falklands as she and President Maurico Macri have recently made claims expressing their desires to reignite the discussion over the territory’s sovereignty. And as Argentina’s geopolitical influence has increased this year amid President Macri’s continued efforts at rapprochement, the duo that is Macri and Malcorra could potentially be a strong enough impetus to finally manifest change for the Falklands.
The other vote
Although the process to select the new General Secretary has always been somewhat opaque, it is known that each of the five permanent members of the UN Security council has veto power, and with that power comes the ability to effectively deny any candidate the position atop the UN.
With the five permanent members of the UN Security Council consisting of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, we may see the UK actively oppose Malcorra’s selection on the basis of the Falklands sovereignty dispute.
With consensus suggesting that Susan Malcorra is an otherwise solid candidate to lead the United Nations, a vote against her candidacy would be a significant action undertaken by the UK in the realm of foreign affairs. But given the momentum of the Argentinians, if the UK doesn’t act, we may at some point come to know the Falklands by their Spanish name – the Malvinas.