Macri Finds Even His Allies Resist Talks With U.K. on Falklands

  • President seeks improved relations, agreement on islands
  • Hot-button issue will require deft political handling: analyst

President Mauricio Macri’s tentative first step toward repairing Argentina’s relations with the U.K. more than three decades after the Falklands War has touched a raw nerve at home.

Following a meeting in Buenos Aires between Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra and U.K. State Minister Alan Duncan, the two countries on Sept. 13 agreed to work toward ending restrictions on oil and gas exploration, shipping and fishing affecting the southern Atlantic archipelago in place since the U.K. took the islands back in the 1982 conflict. They also agreed to allow flights to the islands from Argentina. 

Alan Duncan and Susana Malcorra

Photographer: Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images

Macri has said he wants better relations with the U.K. in a departure from the previous government’s more belligerent position.

Many Argentines though, don’t share his enthusiasm. After a barrage of questions from opposition and allied politicians, Macri has had to back-pedal. Arriving in New York for his first United Nations general meeting as president he reiterated that Argentina’s claim on the islands, which it calls the Malvinas, is non-negotiable. Lawmakers have called for the Foreign Ministry to answer questions before Congress over the negotiations next week.

Dangerous Waters

Macri is in a hurry to reestablish relations with the world as he seeks to attract investment to kick start a flagging economy. Talks with the U.K. could boost trade and represent an opportunity make progress in a dispute that has simmered for decades, but Macri needs to be more adroit in communicating his intentions about an issue that still stirs emotions in Argentina, said Sergio Berensztein, director of the Buenos Aires-based political consultancy Bernesztein.

The Falklands debate is “an enormously sensitive issue domestically, including within Macri’s alliance,” Berensztein said. “The government should have been more cautious, subtle and could have measured its words better.”

Governing without a majority in both houses of Congress, the president has successfully navigated political resistance this year, but support for Argentina’s claim is almost unanimous at home, even if there are differences about how to approach it. Senate President Federico Pinedo, a member of Macri’s PRO party, questioned in media interviews whether allowing flights to the Falklands weakened Argentina’s negotiating position.

Sovereignty Issue

Lawmaker Elisa Carrio, who joined Macri’s alliance during the electoral campaign, issued a joint opinion with Macri’s opponents in Congress critical of last week’s statement and calling for any decision over the islands to have congressional approval.

“I have to confess that when this was made public, I was worried about some things, but fundamentally as a citizen, about the paragraph that talked about measures to remove all the obstacles that limit the economic growth and sustainable development of the Falklands,” Mario Negri, leader of the radical party block of lawmakers allied to Macri, said during a Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Macri attempted to appease his allies while in New York for his first United Nations general meeting, by claiming that in a brief conversation with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May they had agreed to begin talks on the sovereignty of the islands.

‘Strengthen Relations’

He later had to correct his words, while the U.K. said the issue of sovereignty was never mentioned.

“For the avoidance of doubt, the PM did not suggest she would be prepared to discuss the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands -- the issue did not even come up in their brief discussion,” the prime minister’s office said in an e-mailed statement. “We do want to strengthen relations between the UK and Argentina and that means approaching it in a positive and respectful manner.”

Under former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina and the U.K. regularly traded barbs over their rights to the South Atlantic islands, and Fernandez’s government filed criminal charges last year against five companies it accused of carrying out oil exploration without permission from Argentina.

Argentina invaded the islands in 1982, leading to a 10-week war that saw Britain retake the islands at a cost of over 900 killed on both sides. Argentina says the islands were wrongly taken by Britain in the 19th century and refers to a 1965 UN resolution that recognizes the existence of the sovereign dispute and calls for both parties to find a resolution as a reason to sit down and talk. Britain points to a 2013 referendum in which the islanders voted 1,513-to-3 to remain as a U.K. overseas territory.

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