While all G20 leaders are Very Important Persons by definition, none will match the symbolism of the United Kingdom’s Theresa May when she becomes the first sitting British prime minister ever to set foot in Argentina’s capital this weekend.
For some, it may seem especially appropriate that May is that prime minister because if the 1982 South Atlantic war created the need for reconciliation against a Conservative woman (Margaret Thatcher), then another Conservative woman, a generation later, seems just the right person to close the circle.
The head of state’s visit – the first time a sitting PM has visited Argentina since Tony Blair’s visit to meet then-president Fernando de la Rúa at Iguazú Falls in 2001 – is further evidence of improved ties between the two nations, ties which have changed beyond recognition since the arrival of Mauricio Macri to the Casa Rosada in December 2015.
This outreach too will be especially valuable for the British PM, coming at such a difficult time for May at home, with all the entanglements of Brexit.
‘Reconciliation’ can be an abstract word easily used – it needs to be accompanied by concrete steps. Fortunately, one such step has already been confirmed this week just ahead of tomorrow’s historic meeting between President Mauricio Macri and May, to give them a juicy announcement of boosted mainland links with the disputed Malvinas (Falkland) islands – an Argentine stopover in Córdoba for LATAM’s new weekly flight from São Paulo to the Malvinas.
This Córdoba connection will thus double the Argentine stopovers since LATAM’S weekly flights to the islands from Punta Arenas in Chile (since 1999) already has two monthly stops in the Santa Cruz provincial capital of Río Gallegos, one in either direction.
This new agreement with Britain was officially announced by the Argentine Foreign Office last Tuesday following months of negotiations. The announcement clarified that the agreed frequency not only permits passengers to board and disembark in Córdoba but also for cargo and mail to be loaded and unloaded.
Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie explained that the agreement fell within the framework of the sovereignty “umbrella” as defined by the agreement of July 14, 1999 and updated by a joint letter last February – “These instruments constitute the legal basis for flights between the Malvinas and third countries,” he said.
The February letter was in turn a continuation of a joint communiqué contemplating the sovereignty “umbrella” signed by Alan Duncan and Carlos Foradori from the respective foreign ministries. That agreement allowed the Red Cross to identify the remains of 104 Argentine soldiers buried around the islands and until then “known only to God” so that they could be given a proper resting-place in Darwin Cemetery.
The agreement also stipulates annual bilateral meetings “to review the state of air connections, as well as other options for improving connectivity” in the interests of better mainland links for the islands “as part of a gradual process of confidence-building.”
The main problems stretching out these negotiations for months came not so much from the British side as from their inclusion of island representatives in their delegation, who reportedly expressed a certain intransigence based on fears of “a flood of Argentine tourism.”
These fears were especially strong if the agreed stopover were to be in any Buenos Aires airport, as proposed by Faurie’s Ministry – hence the eventual compromise choice of Córdoba (which was incidentally the province which gave Mauricio Macri’s 74 percent of its vote in 2015, clinching his run-off victory).
Britain’s Ambassador in Argentina Mark Kent hailed the visit of Prime Ministry May.
“We are delighted that the Prime Minister will be arriving to Argentina for the G20 Summit. This is the first time that a British Prime Minister visits Buenos Aires.
“The UK and Argentina share a forward-looking agenda which reflects the challenges and opportunities of the modern age,” he added.
“We congratulate Argentina on the organisation of this Leaders’ Summit and we thank the country for the hospitality shown throughout the numerous ministerial and preparatory meetings that were held during the year.”
May’s appearance at the G20 Leaders Summit, however, looks set to be overshadowed by Brexit and, in particular, her attempt to convince lawmakers to ratify her agreement with the EU.
The crucial vote, which could also decide the fate of her premiership, is due to be held on December 11 – less than two weeks away.
She is expected to lose that vote because of fierce opposition from Brexiteer backbenchers within her own party, who say it makes too many concessions to Brussels, and pro-EU MPs who say it will devastate the British economy.
May, who forged a strong reputation as a formidable home secretary, became prime minister in July 2016 in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and has clung to power despite losing her parliamentary majority in hastily called elections in 2017.
She wants post-Brexit Britain to take a leading role on the global stage as an independent trading nation but critics say her country’s influence will wane outside the European Union.