In a perfect world, the trouble over Falklands oil would be resolved in an amicable, bipartisan fashion. Hillary Clinton appeared to hold that view during her recent visit to Buenos Aires, when she endorsed American-led talks on the issue. But for many in Britain her words were far too pro-Argentine; not least because she referred to the islands as las Malvinas. The motivation behind her words, however, was little more than pragmatism, and those who value our “special relationship” need not be perturbed. Far from slighting her country’s staunchest ally, the secretary of state was throwing a sorely-needed bone to a friend who could prove very helpful in furthering the anti-terrorism, anti-drugs agenda in South America.
Her remarks might have made more sense to British observers had they been reported prefaced with the disingenuous praise she heaped on President Kirchner for her handling of the economic crisis. The former First Lady deliberately didn’t mention the $6.5bn of foreign currency reserves that have recently been earmarked for the repayment of Argentina’s overseas debt, a policy that has galvanised popular opposition in Buenos Aires. A formidable trio of powers also opposes it: the former head of the Central Bank, a supreme court judge, and the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, all of whom view the allocation, bludgeoned through by presidential decree, to be illegal and poor policy besides.
This should make it abundantly clear that Clinton did not intend her proposal to be a belated quid pro quo for Britain’s release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi last August. She and her colleagues know that sovereignty can never be divided equally between two functional democracies—not even EU bureaucrats believe that any more. Her call for the two countries to “sit down at the table” was intentionally meaningless. The issue has already been decided, to the loss of 260 British lives, and the continued support of the island’s three thousand or so Marmite-eating inhabitants.
For these reasons, it is amazing that some British commentators have felt it necessary to suggest such insulting “solutions” to the “problem” as an “entrenched leaseback” or the outright sale of the territory, as one German tabloid recently suggested the Greeks do with Corfu. Not even the most bellicose Argentines would expect such a windfall, for in their hearts they know the cause to be utterly hopeless. Their passions are only aroused by the bitter aftertaste that still lingers some 30 years after General Leopoldo Galtieri took their conscript army into battle against a much more professional British taskforce. For hard-working citizens, the recent sabre-rattling has merely been an affordable way of showing solidarity with the barefoot veterans who hold constant vigil in the Plaza de Mayo.
If any positives can be taken from this latest chapter, it is the hope that the Argentines will eventually find their own oil in the South Atlantic, or at least offer the British companies working in the area a base for their operations. Such a change of attitude could provide much-needed cash for their ailing schools, hospitals and social housing.
For the time being, however, the government in Buenos Aires would be well advised to maintain a dignified silence on the issue. Desire Petroleum, the British company currently drilling in the Falklands, would not be the first natural resources company to be slightly too “optimistic” in its early soundings for oil. It could still be safer for investors to plump for Argentine bonds instead.