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International Relations

UK leaves 'no room for doubt' over Falklands

Britain went to war over the Falkland Islands more than 30 years ago. But the issue of their sovereignty has never really gone away. DW looks at the United Kingdom's current policy toward the islands.

The Union Jack flies over Ajax Bay in 1982.

The Union Jack flies over Ajax Bay in 1982.

"Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?"

That's the yes/no question being put to Falkland islanders as they go to the polls on March 10 to 11.

A recent survey from British opinion polling firm YouGov showed that 88 percent of Britons believe the Falklanders should decide for themselves who gets to rule, while 59 percent of Argentinians feel the Falklanders ought to have no say in their sovereignty.

The English-speaking community of 3,000 people is widely expected to vote overwhelmingly for the status quo - that is, remaining a British overseas territory.

"There's absolutely no appetite for any fundamental change," said Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, who will be in the Falkland Islands at the time of the vote. He believes the islanders are holding the referendum to send a message out to the wider world, to say, "here we are, we're a small community, and we don't wish to be bullied by a larger neighbor."

Could 1982 happen again?

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner addresses the Special Committee at the UN

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner talks of "blatant colonialism"

That larger neighbor is of course Argentina, which has upped its rhetoric against Britain over the issue in recent years.

In January, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sent an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, calling the recapture of the Falkland islands "a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism" and noting pointedly that the islands are situated some 14,000 kilometers from London.

Relations between Argentina and the UK are "at their worst since 1982," according to Klaus Dodds.

Could that mean we are about to see a second war over the Falkland Islands?

"I don't think Argentina first of all is militarily capable and secondly considers it politically desirable to resurrect any kind of military invasion-like strategy," said Dodds. "I think what's however occurring is a concerted effort on the part of Argentina to use almost every bit of leverage possible, bar the military option, to pressurize the UK to negotiate over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands."

Argentine troops in the Falklands in 1982

Despite angry rhetoric, the experts don't expect to see a second war in the Falklands

The Iron Lady?

But the UK, it seems, is not about to budge. In contrast to what's been described as the "flaccid" attitude of the then Thatcher government in the run-up to the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, David Cameron is leaving no room for doubt.

"Cameron, you could argue, has been incredibly robust, and made it perfectly clear that he's not prepared to talk about sovereignty at all," said Dodds. "So whilst we often think of Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady in so many areas of her administration, I would argue that the government of David Cameron has probably been the most robust in the last 30 years."

Laurence Allan of forecasters IHS Global Insight agrees with Dodds:

"In the last 12 months or so I think we've seen quite clearly that the UK government has taken a bit more of a proactive policy," he said. "I know that it's far more energetically engaged in Latin America itself, in trying to buttress its position diplomatically with some of Argentina's neighbors."

British attitudes

A child waves a Falklands flag in Stanley June 14, 2012, during commemorations for the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War

Falkland islanders are expected to vote more-or-less unanimously in favor of the status quo

But whilst 30 years ago, Britain did enjoy the support of its allies - notably the United States - the UK government has less international support these days. Most international governments are reluctant to support any hint of colonialism, and Britain's refusal to hand over the territories to Argentina has proved contentious in some quarters.

Some think it's even time to consider giving the islands up. Simon Winchester is a British author, now living in the US. In 1982, he was one of the first journalists to arrive on the Falkland Islands after it had been invaded. He was arrested for "spying" and imprisoned by the Argentines for three months.

"If there was an attack against the Falkland Islands today, I think Britain would be very hard-pressed to fight against an invading force," Winchester told DW. "And [Britain] would also lose the goodwill of not just Argentina … but the other Latin American countries, who would be almost universally hostile, as would the United States."

The General Belgrano as it sank

323 Argentine lives were lost when the Belgrano was sunk by the British in 1982

'Not worth dying for'

Winchester thinks that's a cause not worth pursuing.

"Two major powers with more serious things to deal with are scrapping over it, and people are dying and spilling blood as a result. I think most people would realize that this is just crazy and cannot happen again."

"It's simply not worth people dying for, and that's what I want to avoid," Winchester added.

During the 72-day conflict, 649 Argentines, 255 British and three Falkland Islanders lost their lives.

But despite that, Klaus Dodds thinks the current UK government does have considerable public backing for pursuing its policy on the Falkland Islands.

"One shouldn't underestimate the extraordinary power of war memories," said Dodds. "The Falklands veterans and the way in which we commemorate that particular campaign are now part of British public life. So for example, when we have Remembrance Sunday in November, the Falklands campaign is part of Britain's official war memories, alongside World War I and World War II."

DW.DE