It has been an interesting year for political analysts, full of surprises which may have an impact on the Falkland Islands and by extension on the work of the Falkland Islands Association.
At the time of the last AGM, there was some concern that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party might weaken the cross-party support in Parliament for the Falkland Islanders and the principle of self-determination that has characterised UK policy toward the Falklands since the 1982 conflict. Despite some convolutions, this has not happened – and the level of support and encouragement from parliamentarians at the various party conferences this autumn remains commendably firm.
The Brexit vote at the June referendum brought down David Cameron as Prime Minister (and one of the strongest champions of the Falkland Islands in recent times). But Theresa May is likely to be no less wholehearted in her support of the Falklands and the same can be said of Sir Alan Duncan, the FCO Minister with day-to-day responsibility for issues affecting the Islands. One concern was that, with all the complexities of agreeing the UK's negotiating position with the EU, particularly on access to the single market, the voice of the UK Overseas Territories (OTs) on Brexit would not be heard. It was reassuring, therefore, to note that the Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) had agreed at its annual meeting of UK Ministers and Overseas Territory leaders on 1-2 November to set up a separate group on the European negotiations to take OT interests into account.
The election of Donald Trump as US President-elect caught many by surprise. It is too soon to determine what his policies will be towards Latin America and the UK territories in the South Atlantic. There is a level of unpredictability in his social media utterances that makes any assertion that his policy will be this or that liable to challenge. But he probably starts off with a natural instinct to back the UK (and this might reflect positively on the Falklands). Yet he is said to have a long family association with President Macri of Argentina; they both have business backgrounds and share a business-oriented outlook. One of the first outcomes has been the go-ahead given to the long-stalled Trump Tower project in Buenos Aires, perhaps in the hope of future US investment in the country. But Trump may introduce a degree of US protectionism that could harm Argentina's fragile economy - and whether Trump's attitude to Latin America will be influenced by his views on immigration and collective trade agreements can only be a matter of speculation. At first sight, his views seem more instinctive than policy-driven.
We have now had a year of President Macri in charge of Argentina. He promised change and, on the economy front, change there has been. By ending foreign exchange controls, removing trade barriers, and settling the long-standing dispute with foreign hold-out
creditors over Argentina's various debt defaults, he has reopened Argentina's access to the international capital markets and to inward investment. He has also shifted Argentina's foreign policy orientation away from left-wing Latin American governments towards more traditional Western partners. Equally, he has enhanced transparency with a total overhaul of Argentina's national statistics agency to restore confidence in Government economic data. No longer a pariah state, Argentina has earned the approval of the IMF and OECD; the IMF, for example, lifted its 2013 censure declaration following the resumption of its Article IV assessments in November, after a 10 year pause.
It has not been easy for Macri though. Floating the peso led to a major devaluation, price rises and a lower standard of living for many. Reducing household public utility subsidies and public sector lay-offs sparked widespread social unrest and legal action forcing Macri to slow the rate of reduction. Macri has to rely on a fragile coalition to get his measures through Congress and has seen his popularity ratings fall significantly. His freedom of action may well depend on the outcome of the mid-term elections in October 2017.
The test of his economic reforms will be whether he can attract sufficient inward investment to stimulate the increase in business activity that must generate the jobs to put money into people's pockets. But Brazil, Argentina's main trading partner, is in deep economic recession (and China's growth rate is slowing). Argentine inflation remains stubbornly high and although the OECD predicts Argentine GDP to rise by 3.4% in 2018, Argentina's economy contracted by 8% in October against the previous October, the sharpest drop this year. Commentators have pointed out that previous non-Peronist presidents have fared poorly when it comes to a second term of office.
So where does that leave Macri's policy on the Falklands? Macri had promised a reduction in the level of rhetoric. By and large, that has happened though the Argentine government still cannot constrain itself from protesting about the routine testing of the Rapier missile system. Certainly the new Argentine Ambassador in London has taken a much lower (and more commercially oriented) stance than his predecessor and there has been little of the usual Argentine posturing at the UN.
More significantly, Macri wanted to improve UK/Argentine relations, particularly in trade, investment and the transfer of technical 'know how', so that over time and through increasing contact with the Falkland Islanders, the possibility of dialogue over sovereignty might begin. The Joint Communique agreed with Sir Alan Duncan in September was, from the Argentine Government's perspective, perhaps the first step in this process. This included a section on the South Atlantic, agreeing to set up a dialogue, under the 'sovereignty umbrella' to improve co-operation on South Atlantic issues of mutual interest. 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.
* further air links between the Falkland Islands and third countries would be established which would include two additional stops in Argentina, one in each direction.
* both sides were in full support of a DNA identification process for the unknown Argentine soldiers buried in the Darwin cemetery, discussions on which would be taken forward in Geneva, supplemented by bilateral discussions as required.
The Joint Communique was welcomed by the UK and Falkland Islands Governments, though there were some dissenting voices amongst Falkland Islanders. But the Macri administration came under considerable attack in Argentina, even within Macri's coalition. He had to make it clear that Argentina's sovereignty claim was constitutionally inviolate. There will further discussions but it remains to be seen whether Macri can command sufficient support in both houses of Congress to push through any necessary legislation. It seems unlikely.
What are the implications for the FIA? There may be some who would argue that, with solid cross-party support in Westminster for the Falklands and with FIG wholly capable of representing the Falklands in all spheres of interest, there is no need for a separate lobby group in the UK. Yet, whilst Argentina maintains its sovereignty claim and the adoption of more moderate Argentine policies remain unlikely, there is still much for the FIA to do to help:
* raise awareness about the problems facing the Falkland Islands arising out of Argentina's sovereignty claim. Argentina pays no regard to the wishes of the Falkland Islanders, notwithstanding the overwhelming majority in the 2013 referendum in favour of remaining a British Overseas Territory. Even now, the Argentine Government refuses to acknowledge the Falkland Islands Government, insisting on dealing only with the UK Government;
* counter Argentine propaganda and, through historical research, to correct Argentine distortions of the history of the Falkland Islands. Argentine nationalists persist in peddling historical inaccuracies, even in the UN;
* highlight the modern-day Falklands in the UK, Argentina and elsewhere by showing how the Islands have developed – politically, socially, and economically - since 1982. Many people, even in the UK, see the Falklands only through the prism of 1982 conflict and there is a generation of young people growing up in the UK who have little knowledge of the Falkland Islands and their importance for the UK;
* maintain a capability through its membership to bring influence to bear in support of the Falkland Islanders' right to self-determination. We must never allow the UK Government, for example, to row back on its commitment that there shall be no
discussion of sovereignty change against the wishes of the people of the Falkland Islands.
We believe that the FIA is well placed to maintain a broad-based membership of those committed to the defence of the Falklands who can mount a lobby campaign in their support whenever necessary.
It was in an examination of our capability to do this that we realised that we had little paid-up membership support within the Falkland Islands. Most members, probably rightly, live in the UK or in Islander communities abroad. But it is clearly important, if only for our own credibility, for the FIA to have a broad level of support within the Islands themselves. We much appreciate the support of the Falkland Islands Government which gives us an annual subvention but we need Islanders, particularly young adults, to be members. We have therefore tasked a member of our Executive Committee to undertake a recruitment drive in the Islands, using a short video clip (available via the FIA website – www.fiassociation.com) to explain what we do. We need more members anyway; so please visit the website and forward the video link to your friends asking them to press the 'like' button and pass it on to their own contacts.
Your Executive Committee is made up of volunteers who give up their time on an unpaid basis. We always need more helpers and would particularly like to attract someone with social media expertise but please volunteer if you have other skills. At last year's AGM, we had to acknowledge that we lacked an Hon Sec, a Membership Secretary and a Website Manager. By dint of persuasion of individuals present at that AGM, I can now welcome Tym Marsh as our Hon Sec, Karen Clapp as our Membership Secretary and Tamsin Cunningham as our website manager. We very much value their services.
We have just celebrated the 100th birthday of Sir Cosmo Haskard, a former Governor of the Falklands and one of our Vice-Presidents. Yet it is good to see younger faces at this AGM – students keen to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph as well as a representative of the Falkland Islands Defence Force and we shall be joined at lunch by the cadets from Pangbourne College. We appreciate the presence of Mike Summers MLA and Andrew Rosindell, MP and also of Sir Peter Squire who kindly agreed to become a Vice-President of the Association last year. We were also privileged that the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock OBE, agreed to lay the wreath on behalf of the Joint Services at the Battle Day ceremony this morning at the Cenotaph.
It is a pleasure also to announce the award of the Bill Hunter-Christie prize to Ms Hannah McPhee, who is currently working for a BSc in biomedical science at Queen's University, Belfast. The prize was set up in memory of Bill Hunter-Christie, who was a founder member of this Association who worked tirelessly to create and maintain a powerful lobby in Westminster. The prize is awarded annually to the overseas student who is adjudged to have brought the most credit to the Falkland Islands during the year.
The Association welcomes new members who support the continuing freedom of the people of Falkland Islands. Just click the tab below to learn about the different levels of membership that are available in the UK and overseas.