Weird as it may seem in the midst of an economic crisis and sweeping changes across the Middle East, the Falkland Islands are back in the headlines. And yes, Argentina still cares about them, quite a lot, in fact. Its government has been tightening the screws on the hapless islanders for a few years now, but the rhetorical onslaught of the past few weeks has been astonishing.
Cristina Kirchner called the place the ‘last refuge of a declining empire’. Really? Britain is clinging on to imperial splendour with a few villages in the southern Atlantic? I doubt anyone in the UK outside of a few dark, dusty corners of the civil service could even find the place on a map before Argentina invaded it. The subject barely makes it onto British curriculums, and is not expounded as a point of national honour worth fighting for. Unlike, dare I say it, in Argentina.
I dislike patriotic ranting in general, but find myself veering uncomfortably close to right-wing diatribe whenever the Falklands issue flares up. It’s hard to relate to the Argentine side of the argument, which places such an insane amount of weight on a such a profoundly meaningless dispute, driven mainly, I suspect, by an inability to face the fact that six hundred Argentines died in a pointless conflict.
It’s not just rhetoric, though; Argentina has been putting the screws on the islands over the past two years. First flights to Argentina were cut off, and now the one direct flight to the mainland, to Chile, which provides the islanders with most of their supplies, is coming under pressure. Then, a move across Latin America to ban ships flying the Falklands flag from entering port. But things really got serious when Argentina ordered its trawlers to aggressively fish the squid stocks on which the Falklands’ economy apparently depends.
Seriously? Restoring national honour by waging a proxy war on squid? That said, the UK has hardly taken the moral high ground; the government deployed Prince William to the islands, which aside from being perhaps the oddest manifestation of the ‘warrior royal’ shtick that has sprung up since we started routinely bombing other countries again, manages to look aggressive and quaintly pathetic in one stroke. It managed to conjure up the old spectre of imperialist Britain and the haughty princes that once ran it, while simultaneously reminding the rest of the world that instead of valiant aristocrats we now have a helicopter pilot kept in the public eye only by tabloid obsession.
This is shaping up to be the most absurd international conflict Britain has got itself involved in since the Cod Wars. (Look them up. They really happened.) Conflict is perhaps the wrong word, as both sides know full well that there is little chance of an actual war breaking out; indeed, the whole tiresome exchange of of diplomatic potshots might have been avoided if the Conservative party had simply ignored it.
That said, Britain may have a chance to lessen tensions somewhat. Argentina has fired up its patriotic engines once again in part because the 30th anniversary of the conflict is not far off, but equally because of Britain’s decision to start drilling for potentially substantial oil deposits near the islands.
Using the Falklands to get a legal foothold on natural resources thousands of miles away from the UK is little absurd. Though technically they may fall within the required distance from the islands coastline, any serious British claim to them is both tenuous and arrogant. In any case, the original (at least public) rationale for defending the islands is their right to choose who rules them, rather than a boost to BP’s share price.
The UK should offer Argentina rights to oil, gas and whatever other valuable fuels they can dredge up out of the depths in return for acknowledgement of the general principle that people have the right to pick their own government. We have no legitimate claim to the resources, and any argument that the islanders themselves need control of deep-sea fossil fuels would be strained at best. Argentina might ignore the suggestion, or get even angrier, but it would at least blunt the accusations of British resource colonialism that have left even America hesitant to oppose Argentina’s claim to the islands.
We’re too often blind to how politically effective even the vaguest tirades against British colonialism still are outside of the UK. In the Falklands, there is an opportunity to blunt those accusations, to be diplomatic, reasonable, and with fewer awkward cameos by princes. It should not be missed.