Falkland Islanders choose UK, but will UK always choose them?

Britain's commitment to keeping the islands has so far been unwavering. But the costs of keeping up the far-flung ties may change British attitudes in the future.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
Falkland islanders react after hearing the results of the referendum in Stanley, Monday. Residents of the Falkland Islands voted almost unanimously to stay under British rule in a referendum that has inflamed a long-running sovereignty dispute with Argentina, results showed on Monday.

Spare a thought for the world’s loneliest new political minority: the three people on the Falkland Islands who voted on Monday against the windswept South Atlantic archipelago remaining British. 

Giggles greeted the announcement of the "No" figure in a referendum which saw 1,513 other islands voting yes to the question: "Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom?"

Laughter aside, inhabitants of the islands, which were the setting for a 1982 war that claimed more than 900 lives (mainly British and Argentine combatants but also including three islanders), are hoping that the referendum will send a loud message to Buenos Aires at a time when the government there has been ramping up its rhetoric as well as its (peaceful) efforts to realize its claim to what it calls "Las Malvinas."

But while the position of British governments since the war has been to support unwaveringly the rights of the islanders to self-determination – Prime Minister David Cameron called on Argentina to “respect and revere this very, very clear result" – the little spoken-of prospect of the UK changing its stance at some time in the future nevertheless has a place in the back of minds.

“It does not matter what honeyed words the British government uses. They [the islanders] know very well that the commitment which Britain makes to the Falklands cannot ever be completely unconditional,” says Victor Bulmer-Thomas, an associate fellow and Latin America expert at the foreign affairs think tank Chatham House.

Past British handovers

Professor Bulmer-Thomas added that islanders had also witnessed the cases of Hong Kong, which the British handed back to the Chinese in 1997, and the Chagos Island, a British territory whose inhabitants were evicted to make way for a US airbase, and remember well the pre-war British negligence of the island’s defense, not to mention how some officials had started to think the unthinkable.

While the temptation to cut defense costs by opening up negotations on the Falklands’ future is one which a future government may struggle to resist, however, he describes the likelihood of a Conservative-led coalition doing anything to undermine the territory’s constitutional position as “inconceivable." 

Rather, he suggests that Monday’s referendum is aimed largely at Latin American countries where Argentine efforts to gain support for its territorial claim have been getting results in recent years. Along with public statements of support by leaders, for example, ports have been closed to ships flying the Falkland Islands flag.

From the viewpoint of the Falklands capital, Port Stanley, the measures surrounding Latin American ports and Argentine attempts to stop companies doing business with the Islands is “annoying, but nothing more,” according to Barry Elsby, a member of the islands’ legislative assembly.

As for the prospect of a renewed attempt by Argentina to take the islands militarily, islanders do not feel there is any real danger, stressing the weakened state of Argentine forces and the fact that the country is now a democracy rather than a dictatorship, as it was in 1982, he says via email. 

He adds: “The British Government has always been supportive of our Right to govern our own affairs in all matters apart from defence and foreign policy. This is really a numbers problem – there are simply not enough Falkland Islanders to represent us overseas over the last year or so as the rhetoric from Argentina has intensified.”

“We hope this vote will resonate with all Democratic countries in the region and the wider world and enable them to accept our Right to determine our own future – as laid down in the UN Charter."

Argentina's response

For its part, the Argentine government has described the referendum as having no legal value, arguing that negotiations are in the best interests of the islanders whose British identity it has pledged to respect in all circumstances.

Back in London, Latin America experts such as George Philip of the London School of Economics suggest that other Latin American states that have rowed in behind Buenos Aires have been the usual Argentine supporters. They add that, in reality, much of the current British-Argentine standoff over the Falklands has been about politics. On both sides, unpopular governments have used the issue to leverage domestic support.

“I think it would have been possible to present our position at a lower level of noise than what has occurred and I think he [Prime Minister David Cameron] is trying to gain some political advantage as a patriot,” says Mr. Philip, who has written of how the 1982 invasion actually put a stop to what was an increasing likelihood that successive British governments, including that of Margaret Thatcher, would have been happy to see some kind of sharing of sovereignty with Argentina.

Oil exploration

Thirty years on from the war, a new factor in the background has been the British intensification of oil exploration efforts. 

The islands are currently benefiting from an economic boom due partly to the sale of oil and natural gas exploration licenses, although actual finds have yet to live up to the promises sometimes suggested in periodic press reports 8,000 miles away in the UK. 

If the Falklands region were to really prove a treasure trove of black gold in the future, such a dynamic could change the situation in terms of the seriousness given to the possibility of the islands choosing to go it alone by embracing independence or some form of greater autonomy.

Having half an eye on the pressure in London to make cuts in the era of austerity means that the Falklanders are eager to get on with the business of extracting oil, according to Bulmer-Thomas.

“They would never be able to provide a defense of the islands themselves, but they would be able to pay Britain to provide it,” he adds.

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