London — The first official meeting between Argentina and Britain since the Falklands war collapsed with each side blaming the other for the breakdown. Once again the issue of sovereignty over the Falklands, the territory in the South Atlantic which Argentina calls the Malvinas, was the rock on which the diplomats stumbled.
The talks were held in Berne, Switzerland, on the understanding that sovereignty - who has legal rights over the islands - would be skirted.
According to a formula devised by Swiss and Brazilian diplomats who acted as go-betweens, Argentina would mention sovereignty, Britain would say it did not wish to discuss it, and then the two sides would talk about other questions.
During the talks, however, the British team indicated that discussion of sovereignty would not be appropriate, and the Argentines insisted that sovereignty was what they had traveled to Berne to talk about.
Within a few minutes it became clear that the talks would break down. The British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, later accused Argentina of bad faith. Buenos Aires blamed London for the failure of the meeting.
As diplomats surveyed the wreckage of months of effort to arrange the Berne meeting, they suggested two possible reasons for the sudden derailing of the talks.
One theory is that Argentina's President Raul Alfonsin wanted to demonstrate that he was determined to take a tough line on the Falklands at a time when he was preparing to make concessions to secure an agreement with Chile over the Beagle Channel dispute.
Mr. Alfonsin has to tread warily on issues of national prestige and may have seen an opportunity to placate some critics who think he is moving too fast over the Falklands.
Another theory is that the British Foreign Office used the breakdown in Berne to achieve diplomatic leverage in another part of the world.
Foreign Secretary Howe is attempting to secure a deal with China over the future of Hong Kong. Britian wants Hong Kong to retain its status as a vibrant commercial and banking center after Peking resumes sovereignty over the territory in 1997. The tough line Britain took at Berne on the Falklands could have been intended as a signal to the Chinese leadership that it will not be pushed around in the final phase of negotiations.
Whatever the explanation, Britain and Argentina may pay a considerable price for letting the Berne talks collapse, some analysts say.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will be left for the foreseeable future sustaining a defense strategy in the South Atlantic Alfonsin may have to let this issue bubble away on the back burner.
Meanwhile diplomats of countries that want the issue resolved quickly may need to look for a new formula for bringing London and Buenos Aires together.