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UK/Argentina: Foreign Secretary’s Visit: May 2018

Boris Johnson used a G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Buenos Aires to cement the UK’s increasingly friendly relationship with Argentina more firmly – laying a wreath at Argentina’s ‘Malvinas’ memorial and having bilateral meetings with President Macri and Foreign Minister, Jorge Faurie. The Foreign Secretary took care not to compromise the UK’s position on the Falklands but said that this should not preclude efforts to intensify Britain’s commercial relations with Argentina.

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, Boris Johnson, visited Argentina on 20-22 May as part of a wider trip, taking in Peru and Chile. His main aim was to attend the G20 meeting of Foreign Ministers [1] in Buenos Aires on 21 May (Argentina holds the G20 Presidency this year) but also, in a post-Brexit context, to promote British business in a region that has previously been undeservedly low in British trading priorities for many years.

In Argentina, the Foreign Secretary was keen to cement the closer relations with President Macri’s administration set out in the Joint Communiqué of September 2016 which sought closer co-operation on trade, investment, cultural ties, tackling corruption and organised crime, and increasing links in science and technology. Signs of the new, more amicable mood lay in the fact that this was the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary since Douglas Hurd’s visit in 1993 under President Menem. It was also signalled by the Foreign Secretary’s decision to lay a wreath at the Argentine 1982 Falklands war memorial (‘Monumento a los Caidos en Malvinas’) in Buenos Aires, accompanied by the Argentine Foreign, Defence, and Security Ministers. Boris Johnson was careful, however, to make it clear that his wreath was to commemorate all those who had died in the Falklands conflict.

The Foreign Secretary’s message was that the differences between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands did not and should not stand in the way of the efforts to build partnerships and intensify commercial relations between the two countries. Britain, he said, was “open for business” and, after the UK had left the EU, he looked forward to booming trade prospects and “a new chapter” in the UK’s relationship with Argentina. Argentine Foreign Minister, Jorge Faurie, commented that, despite the ‘Malvinas’ being a “fundamental bilateral issue”, there were many areas in which Argentina was interested in “rebuilding trust”.

Commercial contacts have been increasing. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, for example led a senior trade delegation in August 2017 on a 4-day trip to Argentina, the first British Cabinet Minister to visit since Tony Blair’s symbolic step across the border to meet Argentine President de la Rua at the Iguazu Falls in 2001. UK trade with Argentina needs a boost, coming behind Germany, Italy and Spain (despite the UK being Argentina’s largest trading partner in previous centuries). The UK had in March 2017 responded to Macri’s more positive policies by extending up to £1 billion in export credit guarantees for new British business with Argentina. Current bilateral trade between the UK and Argentina amounts to some £1.5 billion in goods and services.

On Falklands-related issues, relations with Argentina have been improved by the successful conclusion of the ICRC project to identify Argentina’s unknown war dead through DNA testing and the subsequent Argentine visit to the cemetery near Darwin as well as the UK assistance in the unsuccessful search for the missing Argentine submarine. More significantly perhaps has been the first meeting on fisheries co-operation (see separate report) and on the second flight, where Aviation Economics, a specialist firm appointed to analyse the expressions of interest by airline companies, has now presented its confidential report. In February 2018, a joint UK and Argentine letter was delivered to the governments in Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay asking for their assistance in inviting commercial airlines to express an interest in the project. Responses from five airlines (2 in Brazil, 2 in Chile, 1 in Uruguay) were received and have now been analysed – a positive step forward. But other commitments, such as removing trade barriers with the Falklands, have yet to be tackled.

The G20 is made up of 19 countries and the European Union – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the USA. Spain is a permanent invited guest to G20 meetings. Argentina as the 2018 chair has also invited Chile, the Netherlands, Jamaica representing CARICOM, Rwanda representing the African Union, Senegal representing NEPAD and Singapore representing ASEAN. The G20 Summit, which the Prime Minister will attend, will be held in Buenos Aires on 30 November- 1 December 2018 after which the chair passes to Japan.

Argentine sources have hinted that Marcos Peña, Argentina’s Chef du Cabinet, might lay a reciprocal wreath at the Falklands memorial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London later in May.

In 2015, Argentine exports to the UK totalled $721 million; UK sales to Argentina $588 million; in 2016, the figures were $697 and $471 million respectively. The Kirchner regime was not sympathetic to commercial contacts with the UK.

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