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WORLD | 30-11-2018 11:23

Theresa May becomes first UK leader to visit Buenos Aires

British PM's presence at G20 Leaders summit serves to underline improved ties, more than three decades after South Atlantic war.

British Prime Minister Theresa May landed in Buenos Aires Thursday evening for the G20 Leaders Summit, in the process becoming the first UK leader to set foot in Buenos Aires, some 36 years after the South Atlantic War.

May landed at Ezeiza international airport ahead of the summit, where she was met by Argentine officials and local British government representatives. It is the first time a sitting British prime minister has visited Buenos Aires. Former prime minister Tony Blair visited Argentina in 2001, meeting then-Argentine president Fernando de la Rúa at Puerto Iguazú.

The British PM will take part in the two-day leaders summit in Costa Salguero, before attending a cultural event and welcome gala – along with the other 19 leaders and invited guests – at the Teatro Colón.

Before leaving for Argentina, May said she was "pleased to be the first British Premier to visit its beautiful capital, Buenos Aires.

"This is just the latest milestone on a path showing a strengthening of relations between the UK and Argentina," she added.

"We see Argentina as a key partner and the joint statement that the British Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan agreed in 2016 laid the foundation for greater cooperation in a wide range of areas," said May, referring to a landmark accord reached two years ago.

May will hold a one-to-one meeting with President Mauricio Macri on Friday to discuss bilateral cooperation on trade and security, before departing for London on Saturday night.

“The meeting between Prime Minister May and President Macri will cover a wide, meaningful agenda that includes many common interests and projects designed to bring benefits to our peoples,” Mark Kent, the UK ambassador to Argentina, told the Times. “It is a forward-looking agenda which reflects the challenges and opportunities of the modern age.”

Improved relations

The meeting serves to underline improved relations between Britain and Argentina, which have entered a new era under President Mauricio Macri's leadership. While Argentina has repeatedly indicated it will not drop its sovereignty claim over the disputed Malvinas (Falkland) Islands, both sides have agreed to work around the issue, seeking new areas of cooperation.

The 3,400 British citizens who live on the islands insist that sovereignty remains non-negotiable and say a proper thaw in their relations with Argentina remains distant.

However, they have reason to be worried about Brexit: if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal, the islands' economy – heavily reliant on tariff-free squid exports to EU member Spain – could face a hammer blow.

Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie made waves last month, after saying Buenos Aires would exploit Brexit to enhance its diplomatic push for the Malvinas.

Britain's sovereignty claim to the islands dates back to 1765 and it has held permanent administration since 1833. Buenos Aires claims the islands, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the coast, are occupied Argentine territory.

Argentina's then-ruling military junta invaded on April 2, 1982, but surrendered on June 14 to a British taskforce after a brief but intense and bloody war.

“More connectivity”

Faurie told AFP ahead of the summit that Buenos Aires was discussing with London the possibility of "creating more connectivity to the islands."

Both sides confirmed a new flight to the islands, which will stop at Córdoba, had been agreed.

"There is a lot of room still to grow in terms of confidence and trust between the two countries," he said. "Our expectation is that the rebuilding of bilateral trust... will constitute a sort of substantive material to discuss all other issues about the sovereignty of the Malvinas."

Once Britain is outside the EU in March 2019, the 27 other states will no longer be obliged to support London's sovereignty position. Brexit is also an opportune moment for Anglo-Argentine ties: Britain is seeking new trade partners outside the EU while Argentina needs to find ways out of an economic crisis.

"Post-Brexit, [Argentines] are imagining that if the Falkland Islands has to get its economic act in order, that may open up channels," Richard Lapper, a South America specialist at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs think-tank in London, told AFP. "The big prize for Britain is the prospect of very cheap agricultural imports. The Argentines may say they only want to do a deal on food if we have a side agreement on the Falklands."

Jimena Blanco, Americas chief and Argentina expert at risk analysts and strategic forecasters Verisk Maplecroft, said President Mauricio Macri had moved away from the Malvinas "sabre-rattling" of his nationalist predecessor Cristina Kirchner.

Macri's Malvinas policy-makers "have a more moderate approach," she told AFP.

"There is an understanding that the war, and confrontation under Kirchner, made a lot of damage that cannot be undone by one administration. It needs to become a sustained state policy whereby future generations of Falkland Islanders no longer see Argentina as a threat but more as a neighbour that they might want to have a special relationship with."

No-deal Brexit threat

As an EU member state's overseas territory, the islands enjoy tariff- and quota-free access to the European single market. Some 94 percent of fisheries exports go to the EU, contributing 40 percent of the islands' GDP and a third of government revenue. The second-biggest sector is meat and wool exports. 

It is estimated that a no-deal Brexit would shrink the Falklands government's revenue by up to 16 percent, damaging its ability to deliver public services and invest in roads and hospitals.

Tariffs would "wipe out the EU as a market for meat exports", while there "really isn't an alternative market" for its squid than southern Europe, said Richard Hyslop, senior policy advisor to the local government on the islands.

"The fishing industry is a huge success story for the Falklands and we don't want to see anything happen that damages that," he told AFP.

Even so, establishing alternative trade links with Argentina seems a long way off.

Their sovereignty claim is enshrined in the constitution and Kirchnerite-era legislation aimed at frustrating the economy remains in place.

"Certainly I don't think anyone's looking at direct trade with Argentina," said Teslyn Barkman, the Falklands lawmaker responsible for Brexit, the EU and natural resources.

"Regardless of Brexit, they would be trying to find opportunities to work this sovereignty conversation into any development," she told AFP.


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