For the overly-romantic, the name ‘Brussels’ inconveniently taints the almost-mythical story of the Falklands War. At first glance, the conflict appears like an exploit from the old days of Empire; a foreign aggressor invades a distant British territory, a ship-full of Tommies are dispatched to take it back, and the resulting military victory is baptised in the raising of the Union Flag in hostile foreign winds.
This cosy picture of the conflict misses important elements of Britain’s modern strategy. Our influence in Europe was vital in pressurising the Argentinian regime through collective sanctions, something which Prof. Lisa Martin covers in great detail in this piece. The cosy romantic fiction doesn’t simply miss this point, but also endangers British interests by misrepresenting how the modern state pursues defends the interests of its people.
What is notable about the Falklands War is not just how Britain deployed her soldiers, but how this was coupled with the use of her influence in international organisations; the EU (back then called the EEC), the UN, and the Commonwealth. As Thatcher herself told the House of Commons, “we seek, and shall continue to seek, a diplomatic solution… Diplomatic efforts are more likely to succeed if they are backed by military strength.”
In April 1982, while British forces sailed for Ascension Island, the British Foreign Secretary was sent on his own mission to Brussels. The aim was to negotiate the imposition of EU sanctions on General Galtieri’s Argentine regime. European trade was crucial for Argentina. The EEC accounted for around 20% of Argentine exports, with West Germany being Argentina’s largest European trading partner, importing $565 million of goods and exporting almost $1 billion worth.
On April 6th the newly appointed Foreign Secretary Francis Pym formally requested that the EEC place sanctions on Argentina. On April 10th, European Foreign Ministers agreed a complete ban on imports, an agreement which went significantly further than the USA.
At the time, these were some of the strongest ever sanctions imposed by the EEC. Thatcher applauded them, announcing to the Commons that “the most significant measure has been the decision of our nine partners in the European Community to join us, not just in an arms embargo, but also in stopping all imports from Argentina. This is a very important step, unprecedented in its scope and the rapidity of the decision.”
The decision was not reached easily. Italy relied heavily on Argentinian leather for its fashion industry. Ireland sought to maintain its neutrality and was keen to avoid attachment to foreign wars. For them, the sanctions were an alternative to armed conflict and could push Galtieri towards a diplomatic settlement.
The sinking of the Belgrano was a mortal threat to Europe’s embargo. In May, Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey formally advocated non-renewal of the sanctions. This forced the British government to consider how reluctant states could be won over. The solution would found in the Common Agricultural Policy.
For some time, the British government had blocked any increase in farm prices. Compromise here would be an acceptable side-payment for other states who, in return, would consent to maintaining pressure on Galtieri. Agreement was reached and the sanctions were renewed. Without the ability to bargain at the top table, it is questionable whether this could have been achieved.
In the modern age, conflict and deterrence are not simple questions of military capability. Influence in the world’s most important international organisations is vital for protecting British interests and solving international conflict. For the Falklands War, the ability to negotiate and bargain with European partners helped maintain pressure on the Argentinian regime in a way which would have been unlikely for a non-EU member.
Such a lesson will be significant in the future. The EU is Argentina’s largest trading partner after Brazil. In 2014, Argentina exported €7.7bn of goods and imported €8.7bn. Argentina’s debt in 2015 was 45.8% of GDP, with the government also struggling with a 5.8% of GDP deficit and a rate of inflation of about 27%. With the threat of sanctions from the EU, Argentina will be less likely to pursue hostile actions. Negotiating and defending any sanctions will rely on Britain’s ability to bargain as an EU member.
EU membership aids our ability to bargain. Sitting at Europe’s top table means our Foreign Minister can attend European summits, it means that Britons are present throughout the EU machinery, and it means that British MEPs can speak for Britain in the European Parliament. Our interests are best protected by negotiating in the room, not by shouting through the window.
Some Eurosceptics mistakenly believe that pulling out of the EU will help what they call ‘Global Britain’. They rely on an idea that the Commonwealth alone will do. Any objection to this is denounced as ‘talking Britain down’.
Both claim are simply untrue. We have been part of the Commonwealth and the EU for over forty years. The Falklands War is a perfect example of how Britain makes the most of both. Just like the EU, the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada all imposed tough trade sanctions on Argentina. They are both important for British influence. Choosing between one and the other is nonsensical. Even New Zealand’s Prime Minister supports British EU membership. There is no need for a self-imposed mutual exclusivity.
The second claim, that one is ‘talking Britain down’, is an intellectually weak attempt to limit discussion to their cosy fiction. It degrades our ability to advocate what is best for Britain for fear we might be too realistic. The EU helps Britain defend her interests in a body which governs the world’s largest single market. It is not talking Britain down to say that our influence in the EU is worth defending.
The EU is an important part of how Global Britain uses her voice in the world. A vote to remain in the EU is more than a simple vote to keep our influence in Brussels. Voting to remain means helping to protect our influence in the world. A Global Britain should not surrender her influence in the EU. We cannot give in to the temptation of a cosy romantic fiction.