Britain and Argentina will continue to rebuild their once-strained relationship by boosting trade ties – and without raising the sensitive issue of the disputed Malvinas (Falkland) Islands, their respective foreign ministers declared this week.
On a trip to Buenos Aires that was closely observed on both sides of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit Argentina in 22 years. Both governments were keen to play up the historic nature of the visit, which comes more than three decades after the two sides were at war in the South Atlantic. “It is true that we are doing a great deal together now and we are building a partnership in security, transport, health and technology,” Johnson told a press conference with his
Argentine counterpart Jorge Faurie on Tuesday. The British minister repeatedly stressed the importance of trade during his trip, highlighting the “massive, massive opportunities” that were there for the taking. The British government of Prime Minister Theresa May is looking to woo countries outside the European Union with which it can forge closer trade ties after Brexit.
Asked about the islands on Tuesday, Johnson said “our two positions are well known… but that does not preclude and should not preclude all what we are doing together now to build a partnership... and in the intensifying commercial relationship.” “People do not want to go to war,” said Faurie. “The Malvinas is a fundamental bilateral issue, but there are also a whole set of areas in which we are interested in rebuilding trust,” he said.
These include trade and investment, transport, health, cooperation in the Antarctic, as well as projects on education, human rights and gender equality.
Flights to the disputed islands may also now be on the table. Faurie confirmed on Tuesday that five airlines had proposed new flights between the islands and Argentina and said they were under consideration. Reports suggested two Brazilian carriers, as well as operators from Chile and Uruguay, had made proposals. Faurie did not name them. At present, there is only one flight a week to the islands which departs from Chile, with a stop in Rio Gallegos, south Patagonia. It is understood the new proposals would depart from third nations, with a stopover in Argentina.
“If and when it happens I certainly hope to be among the first passengers on that flight,” said Johnson, the first foreign minister to visit in 22 years. The war between the two nations began when troops dispatched by dictator Leopoldo Galtieri occupied the archipelago. A British expeditionary force was sent to the islands and recaptured them. In all, the war claimed the lives of 649 Argentines and 255 British soldiers.
Britain refuses to negotiate the status of the islands, as demanded by Argentina. Nearly 3,000 people living on the islands voted in a referendum in 2013 to remain part of Britain.
The islands have still played a role, however, in the improved relations between London and Buenos Aires.
A forensic study led by the International Committee of the Red Cross identified the remains of 120 Argentine soldiers last year after a multinational team of experts exhumed the remains. Relatives of the soldiers travelled aboard flights earlier this year to the remote cemetery in the South Atlantic where until now, the gravestones of their loved ones read: “Argentine soldier known only to God.”
On Sunday, in another hugely symbolically important moment, Johnson laid a wreath at a monument to fallen soldiers from the war in the capital. He was accompanied by Faurie at the cenotaph.
“It is an honour to join Foreign Minister Faurie today, and to lay a wreath at the Monument to the Fallen, commemorating all those who died in the Falklands Islands conflict”, Johnson said.
Defence Minister Oscar Aguad, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and British Ambassador to Argentina Mark Kent also attended Sunday’s homage.
Stressing the importance of looking forward, Johnson heralded a “new, exciting phase” in Anglo-Argentine relations on Monday as he wrapped up his historic visit, which was organised to coincide with the G20 foreign ministers summit. “We should hail this moment, celebrate this moment of intelligent reinsertion,” Johnson told a crowd of politicians, business people and cultural leaders gathered for a special event hosted by Ambassador Kent. The former mayor of London had words of praise for his “esteemed former mayoral colleague Mauricio Macri,” noting the PRO leader had “engaged in what he has called intelligent reinsertion into the global community.”
“This is happening at the very moment when our country, the United Kingdom, is intelligently reinserting itself into the global community,” Johnson added, with a nod to Brexit and domestic political arguments back in London. “Not by being less European”, he warned, instead by being “more global, more outward looking and more engaged with the world, particularly with this part of the world.”
Johnson used his speech to address the absence of previous British officials.
“I cannot escape the great question hanging over this visit which is: why am I the first Foreign Secretary to come to this country in 25 years”, he said. “Were my predecessors lazy, were they stupid, were they ignorant of this incomparable country?” he added, jokingly.
The UK’s top diplomat also celebrated the presence of British businesses in Argentina and pointed to signs of an improved “developing” relationship.
“We built the railways once why shouldn’t we do it again?” he pondered, referring to the possibility of a win for British bids in the Subte underground expansion tender process.
“There are massive, massive opportunities,” he concluded.
Johnson was not the only British minister touching base with Argentina last week – Health Secertary Jeremy Hunt met up with his Argentine counterpart Adolfo Rubinstein at the World Health Organisation (WHO) assembly in Geneva, where they announced a £5-million British contribution toward a research project to tackle the problem of growing microbe resistance to anti-biotics.