UK / Argentina: Joint Communique: 13 September 2016

The joint communique, issued after a series of high-level meetings between Sir Alan Duncan and Argentine Government Ministers in the margins of a Business and Investment Forum in Buenos Aires on 12-13 September, was welcomed by the Governments of both the UK and the Falkland Islands but it has created quite a stir in Argentina.

Sir Alan Duncan was making his first official visit to the region following his appointment in July as FCO Minister of State for Europe and the Americas. This was the first such visit to Argentina since 2009 and was intended to mark an initial step in the thawing of relations between Argentina and the UK promised by President Macri when he took up office in December 2015. 

The joint communique focussed primarily on developing closer co-operation on a broad range of issues - e.g. increasing trade and investment, tackling corruption and organised crime, strengthening cultural ties, increasing links in science and technology, co-operating in international fora, and countering threats to international security. The text promised annual high-level meetings to consider strategic policies and joint work on specific issues that would be taken forward in formal annual meetings. 

The joint communique also included a section on the South Atlantic. Under the so-called sovereignty umbrella agreed in 1989 to protect the UK and Argentine positions on sovereignty over territories in the South Atlantic (see text under "Resources - Key Documents" in the FIA website www.fiassociation.com), it was agreed that appropriate measures would be taken to "remove all obstacles limiting the economic growth and sustainable development of the Falkland Islands, including in trade, fishing, shipping and hydrocarbons. Both sides also agreed that, in accordance with the principles set out in the 1999 Joint Statement and side letters on air communications (see text under "Resources - Key Documents" in the FIA website www.fiassociation.com), "further air links between the Falkland Islands and third countries would be established. In this context they agreed the establishment of two additional stops per month in mainland Argentina, one in each direction." 

Both sides also expressed their full support for the DNA identification of unknown Argentine soldiers buried in the Darwin cemetery. 

The UK Government issued a press statement welcoming the joint communique as "the first positive statement on South Atlantic issues since 1999". But Sir Alan Duncan made it clear that "the UK continues to strongly support the rights of the Falkland Islanders and our position on sovereignty has not changed - there can be no dialogue on this unless the Falkland Islanders so wish." 

The Falkland Islands Government (FIG), which had been kept fully in the loop throughout, also issued a press statement welcoming the Argentine Government's agreement to remove the obstacles limiting the economic growth and development of the Falkland Islands. They looked forward to the "removal of sanctions on hydrocarbons, fisheries, shipping and tourism". On flights, they said that FIG had been exploring the possibility of additional flights to the Falklands from a third country in South America for some time but stressed that "any future stopover in Argentina will operate in the same way as the current LATAM flight from Santiago". They also agreed to facilitate the ICRC-led programme to identify the unknown Argentine soldiers buried in the Darwin cemetery. They went on to affirm that "FIG will be represented at any future discussions on the above matters. Sovereignty of the Falkland Islands will not be part of these discussions." 

Reactions in Argentina were mixed. After an initial pause, opinion seemed to divide between those who welcomed the promise of a dialogue with the UK and those who felt that the Macri administration had betrayed Argentina's long-held principles by abandoning the requirement for immediate discussions on sovereignty. Unrealistic expectations were raised in the Argentine media that any additional flight would be to and from Argentina and be operated by the Argentine national air carrier and that Argentina would have unrestricted access to Falklands' waters for fisheries and hydrocarbons exploitation. Critics warned that any relaxation of the Argentine restrictions on communications and trade with the Falkland Islands would require the repeal of legislation in Congress where Macri could not be certain of majority support. Various groups, including Sergio Massa's "Renewal Front", were vocal in stressing that Argentina's sovereignty claim should not be set aside. 

Perhaps to redress the balance, President Macri used his speech to the UN General Assembly to reiterate his call for London to start a dialogue to "solve the two century-old sovereignty dispute amicably". It should, he said, be possible to find "a definitive solution to this prolonged dispute". He then reported that he had used a very brief, informal contact with Theresa May at a luncheon hosted by the UN Secretary General to say that he was "ready to begin an open dialogue which obviously includes the issue of sovereignty." He then went on to suggest that the British Prime Minister had agreed that "we should begin "talking" which he interpreted as an indication that she had not ruled out discussions on sovereignty. Susana Malcorra had to row back on this by stressing that the joint communique was not a legally binding document; that no route map had been decided nor even a date for a future meeting decided; and that, whilst sovereignty remained an absolute requirement for Argentina, it would be a big step, she said, to suggest that the issue was on the table.