On Tuesday, the South American countries banded together in support of Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, a democratic and self-governing British territory in the South Atlantic. This move formalises a trend, which began last year, whereby South American countries reject British naval vessels from entering their ports, citing British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands as the reason for the refusal. For example, Uruguay denied the British destroyer, HMS Gloucester, access to Montevideo harbour in 2010; while, earlier this year, Brazil did the same in relation to the British corvette, HMS Clyde, which was prevented from cruising into the port of Rio de Janeiro.
While slightly alarming in its own right, the Uruguayan and Brazilian moves are nothing out of the ordinary; South American countries have become more resolute in their support of Argentina over recent years. For example, Hugo Chavez, the crazy dictator of Venezuela, took it upon himself last year to lambast ‘Mrs. Queen’ for her tenacity to stand for the self-determination and democratic rights of the Falkland Islanders – even offering to support Argentina in a future armed conflict with the British – seemingly oblivious to either the constitutional arrangements or military reach and superiority of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Argentina has become increasingly aggressive since imposing a maritime blockade of sorts over the Falklands, which has even led to the interception of Spanish fishing boats. Equally, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, has stepped up the ante, with the articulation of all sorts of grubby little arguments in an attempt to re-assert her country’s claim over the islands.
What is significant about this latest Falklands spat is the way in which it is becoming regionalised. The South American countries have started to band together to support Argentina. More significantly, rather than Argentina, another South American country – Uruguay – proposed the closure of South America’s Atlantic ports not only to British warships, but also to merchant vessels registered in the Falklands. This move was then supported by the whole of the ‘Southern Common Market’. From this moment on, all British warships and merchant vessels flying the flag of the Falkland Islands will no longer be welcome in ports belonging to the Atlantic-facing trade bloc, which includes four countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay), and several observers.
If nothing else, the incident has given the United Kingdom the opportunity to reconfirm its commitment to protect the interests of the islands. As John Spellar, the shadow foreign minister, put it:
While this looks like a bit of a flag waving gesture, Argentina should be in no doubt of the united determination of all parties in the United Kingdom to protect the Falkland Islanders’ right to determine their own future.
Indeed, the British response has been firm: Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, called for the swift dispatch of a nuclear submarine, a point that was not lost on Buenos Aires; Roger Spink, the president of the Falkland Islands’ Chamber of Commerce, rightly pointed out that ‘if we were Palestine, the European Union would be up in arms’; and the Foreign Office has hauled in numerous diplomats to express British concern. In some ways, though, the closure of South America’s Atlantic ports does not matter very much. There are only twenty-five vessels in the Falklands’ merchant marine; the Royal Navy’s warships do not need to berth in South America’s Atlantic ports, for Britain has the logistical wherewithal to support them almost anywhere with its auxiliary fleet (as well as at the naval station in the Falklands at Mare Harbour); and vessels flying Britain’s merchant ensign will still be welcome (Uruguay went out of its way to assert that its support for Argentina is not an anti-British commercial drive).
Where it does matter, however, relates to the support Europeans often give to regional organisations on other continents, which are often likened to the European Union itself. Europeans frequently support the African Union, the Southern Common Market and the Association of South-east Asian Nations, among other organisations that are less well-known. The argument is frequently put that these entities mirror the history of Europe’s own integration, and will lead to greater peace and prosperity in their respective regions, meaning that Europeans should support them. Aside from the fact that this claim fails to recognise the role of British, French and American nuclear power in Europe – through the Atlantic Alliance – after the Second World War, which removed the security dilemma among West European countries, providing an environment in which integration could take place, it also fails to pay attention to potential problems in the future.
At this point a question arises: correctly, the argument is often made that European integration offers Europeans an opportunity to retain the capabilities and capacities in an increasingly non-European world to protect and assert their values and interests. Through the agglomeration of power through central European institutions, Europeans would have formidable means at their disposal, giving them an asymmetry of power over almost any other country, except the United States and China (which would be equal). But surely the same line of reasoning could apply to other regional organisations too?
For if South American countries, African countries or Asian countries, for example, can find a way to band together through their respective regional organisations and project their collective weight, surely it means the European Union’s potential asymmetry would get reduced? Would it not also mean that the power of individual European countries would also get weakened vis-à-vis the foreign regional organisations, reducing their influence further still?
European policy should therefore be very different. The European Union should end its policy of trying to build up foreign regional organisations. On the contrary, it should actively seek to prevent their crystallisation. After all, ‘divide and rule’ is perhaps the primary rule of all politics. This latest spat over the Falkland Islands may be largely irrelevant and of little consequence to anyone but the South American countries, who have done nothing more than further alienate the Falkland Islanders, while losing a potential commercial partner, particularly if large reserves of energy are found around the islands. But tomorrow, the issue could be more important. What would happen in twenty or thirty years from now, should the European Union wish to promote a particular policy on another continent – in Africa, in Central Asia, in South America or even South-east Asia – only to find itself blocked by some newly-empowered regional organisation? Or worse, what would happen if those foreign organisations sought to use their collective power to impose their own policies on Europeans?